Rocco and His Brothers (1960)
“DARING in its realism. STUNNING in its impact. BREATHTAKING in its scope.”
Director: Luchino Visconti
Cast: Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot
Synopsis: Having recently been uprooted to Milan, Rocco and his four brothers each look for a new way in life when a prostitute comes between Rocco and his brother Simone.
Filmed in a neo-realist style amongst the grimy, often rain-swept streets of Milan, Rocco and his Brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli) tells the tale of five brothers who move from the country to the city with their widowed mother. They have been driven North by the harshness of life in the South, and dream of an easier life in Milan. One of the brothers has already established himself in the city when the rest of the family arrive, and they pay a visit immediately upon their arrival. Unfortunately, Vincenzo (Spiros Focas) is celebrating his engagement to Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale) at her family’s flat, and the two mothers take an instant dislike to one another, meaning that the family, who had hoped they would be able to lodge with Vincenzo, has to find their own place. They eventually find a cramped basement flat, but life is tough until they excitedly awaken one morning to a snowfall which means that they will at last have work shovelling snow.
As time goes on, the family adapts to city life. They learn that if they fail to pay the rent on their basement flat and get evicted they will be re-housed in a better apartment so this is what they do. Rocco (Alain Delon) finds work at a dry cleaning service, while Simone (Renato Salvatori) pursues a boxing career when he is put under contract by a shady promoter of dubious sexuality. This homoeroticism is an undercurrent that runs throughout the film, despite both Rocco and Simone becoming involved with the same woman, a hooker named Nadia (Annie Girardot).
Although the film is focused on the brothers, it’s the character of Nadia that is the most interesting — and tragic. A vibrant woman possessing a level of sophistication that belies her humble roots, her involvement with the brothers proves to be her downfall. Initially, she begins a relationship with Simone, even though it’s clear he never really means that much to her. Simone, however, is smitten. Already struggling to devote the time and energy he should to his training, he allows himself to be seduced by a self-destructive life into which Nadia will also be sucked. However, the manner in which she becomes a victim of the brothers is not through Simone’s weakness, but the generosity of spirit of Rocco, with whom she begins a relationship two years after splitting from Simone.
Rocco and his Brothers is frequently described as operatic realism, which sounds like a misnomer but is actually a quite appropriate label. There’s a kind of epic sweep to the brothers’ story, even though it is firmly entrenched in the working class realities of a dingy working-class city. Each brother perhaps inevitably represents a different aspect of societal norm: Vincenzo is the family man, Rocco the forgiving one who, as the film’s title suggests, binds the family together; Simone is the unreliable wastrel, Ciro the pragmatic one. Luca, the youngest of the brothers, and still a boy, is of course the innocent one. In the countryside, these different personalities might have meshed together in harmonic co-operation, but we see the isolating influence of urban life slowly pulling the family apart.
Although Rocco and his Brothers is nearly three hours long, it never falters for a moment. That’s not to say it’s without flaws: the dubbed acting of some of the leads is pretty poor, and Delon doesn’t really convince as a hot-shot boxer — he takes to the ring when Simone’s career begins to falter. The goodness of his character — particularly in relation to Simone’s attitude towards Nadia — also strains credibility. Surely nobody without a couple of white wings sprouting out of their backs could tolerate such selfishness and spite the way that he does. Nevertheless, the strength of the narrative, and Visconti’s unique take on the male animal and what it means to be masculine — if ever the camera had an exclusively queer eye, it was during the making of this movie — is never anything less than absorbing.
(Reviewed 11th March 2013)