Rocco and His Brothers has been restored by the Cineteca di Bologna and the Film Foundation and it reappears complete with a couple of UK censor’s cuts now included. It’s quite simply magnificent, demonstrating Luchino Visconti’s great strengths of realism and melodrama as presented by a passionate opera director. It also features three central performances, each of which is worth the price of admission alone and which together keep our attention riveted to the action over nearly three hours.
Like many major films of the period this was an Italian-French co-production with two of the three leading roles taken by French actors. Alain Delon would go on to become one of the major French stars of the next twenty years and alongside Plein soleil in 1960 this was the film that established his international reputation. Annie Girardot was a major new female player in France in the 1950s, surprisingly ignored by the Cahiers critics-turned-filmmakers in the early 1960s but here getting the international exposure she merited. Visconti himself began his film education as an assistant to Jean Renoir in the 1930s before making Ossessione (Italy 1942), often regarded as the first neorealist film. I was reminded of Ossessione several times in watching Rocco and His Brothers, especially by scenes around Lake Como and by the bleakness of the outskirts of Milan. The story of the film is relatively straightforward. Rocco (Delon) is the third of five brothers and at the start of the film the four youngest brothers arrive with their mother in Milan to join Vicenzo the eldest, already trying to start a new life. The family comes from what is now known as Basilicata in the far South of Italy. The brothers struggle to establish themselves but eventually the second brother, Simone (Renato Salvatori), wins some fights as a professional boxer. This will eventually prove to be an unfortunate development as his success attracts the attention of a beautiful but dangerous prostitute, Nadia (Girardot). She later develops a rather different kind of relationship with Rocco and the resulting love triangle tears the family apart. Salvatori gives the third great performance. He has the look and the body of a boxer, something he trained for in preparation for the role. Several commentators have suggested that Coppola and Scorsese were both very impressed by Visconti’s film. Nino Rota wrote the score for Rocco and His Brothers and went on to work on The Godfather for Coppola. Salvatori’s performance was perhaps an inspiration for De Niro in Raging Bull?
The script is not without flaws. Visconti presents it in five chapters titled after each of the brothers in turn, but they don’t each get the same screen time and it is as if Visconti uses the other three characters to explore the sociological and cultural questions about the migration to the North while the melodrama rages around Rocco and Simone. Vicenzo marries the respectable Ginetta (an under-used Claudia Cardinale) and begins a family. Ciro, the fourth son, continues his education and becomes a ‘new worker’ – a skilled man at the Alfa-Romeo factory. The fifth brother is still a child at the beginning of the film and his main contribution (apart from running errands) seems to be to prompt Rocco into thinking of moving back down South to reclaim the family’s roots. (Rocco is named after San Rocco – the saint associated with the city of Potenza in Basilicata.)
In some ways the film’s story runs counter to the idea that the South is the source of corruption (and organised crime) and that the North is the new modern, ‘civilised’ Italy (a view partly derived from Gramsci). Geoffrey Nowell-Smith links Rocco and His Brothers to Visconti’s other ‘historical’ ventures, including his similarly long film on the tuna fishermen of Sicily, La terra trema (1948) and the rather different Senso (1954) set at the time of the Austrian loss of Northern Italy in 1866. It’s fascinating to read Nowell-Smith’s 1967/73 ‘Cinema One’ book on Visconti some forty years later. He points out that Delon is both ‘wrong’ as a peasant from the South, and as the boxer who is drawn into the fight game by his brother’s actions – but also very ‘right’ as the seemingly weak, puny character who has great strength in his convictions. Smith also recognises that Rocco is actually much more concerned about his traditional view of the family than he is about the safety of Nadia. There is great complexity in the triangular relationship of the melodrama and it requires analysis and reflection to work through the links between the two types of drama. Max Cartier as Ciro doesn’t have Delon’s star power. In a different film his performance would have worked well. Here he comes across as a vehicle for statements of aspiration and his action in exposing his brother’s crime seems like a betrayal of family. In a different way the high melodrama performance of the Greek actress Katina Paxinou (an acclaimed international theatre star) as the mother of the family works in terms of the central melodrama but perhaps not in a neo-realist narrative.
I’ve noted that positions on Rocco and His Brothers have tended to change over time. Nowell-Smith in his entry on Visconti in Richard Roud’s Cinema, A Critical Dictionary in 1980 seems to have moved towards a more damning criticism of the melodrama narrative. He seems to feel that the problem with Rocco is that Visconti does not have a literary source which might ‘reign in’ his melodrama and opera tendencies. Other critics have in fact tried to find literary sources that might have influenced Visconti, including Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers. Part of the problem for critics has been that the films of Fellini and Antonioni from the same rich period of Italian cinema have to some extent pushed Visconti into the background. My own preference would always be for Visconti and I think it’s time his work was re-evaluated. Many of Visconti’s films are not ‘in print’ as either cinema prints or DVDs in the UK and this makes it difficult. However, Rocco is part of the Masters of Cinema DVD offer (2008) which also had Bellissima from 1952 but that now seems to be no longer available.
I haven’t mentioned Giuseppe Rotunno’s excellent cinematography on Rocco (and many of Visconti’s films) and he is listed as ‘supervising’ the visual qualities of the digital restoration at the age of 90. The other feature of the film which probably now gets more attention is the narrative importance of a homoerotic attraction that underpins Simone’s boxing career when he is taken on by a promoter who will eventually be drawn into the struggle between Simone and Rocco. That struggle in turn seems to involve more than just brotherly rivalry in its brutality and sexual humiliation. I’m going to have to watch the film again.
The original Italian trailer refers to the controversies in 1960s about the frankness of some scenes: