Rocco and His Brothers (1960)

14 03 2008

This was really a nice surprise. Not that I was expecting it to be bad or anything, but the fact that it basically established all Italian stereotypes of modern cinema made me fairly skeptical. The length and frequent shifts in tone will be off-putting to some, but those that stick around will find a film that is much more truthful than almost all of the American films that it influenced. It has some random blasts of violence that come off as silly, but the rest of the film shows no rush in establishing these characters’ lives.

In the film’s opening sequence, we are introduced to most of the family: Rosaria and her four sons, Rocco, Simone, Ciro, and Luca. They are all on a train headed to Milan to meet the fifth brother, Vincenzo, who is celebrating with his wife and parents in-law to be. At first, the family are polite and delighted to meet each other but eventually, Rosaria breaks and she takes her sons to begin a new life in Milan.

It’s at this point that the film establishes it’s structure. Via title cards, we are introduced to each member of the family and each member is given their own episode so to speak. The film is not a series of vignettes, though. The “Simone” episode, if anything, points our interest towards Rocco. Despite being the only name mentioned in the title, he stays in the shadows. It’s a mixed reading on my part, but I find Delon’s reserved character who lacks attention for the first hour, as the most developed character in the film. It seems almost as though Visconti is developing the other characters in a much more conventional style but still putting the real flesh on Delon’s character. No doubt, his perfectly subdued performance more than prepared him for working with Antonioni two years later in L’Eclisse.

The narrative takes a violent swing somewhere around the hour and a half mark. Returning from his military service, Rocco has fallen for Nadia, a whore and ex-lover of Simone. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, but Simone’s response to his brother dating a girl he liked two years ago is a bit over the top to me. Without giving anything away, he basically wants to kill him. The observant and downplayed scenes leading up to it are gripping and may very well be the film’s highest peak but at the same time, I can’t fault the film for a narrative choice it makes halfway through. Especially when it regroups after an odd swing of drama, though there is indeed some excess, particularly the scene in which Nadia wants to kill herself.

As articulated earlier, this does have some “rough” patches and honestly, it probably is a bit too long but for the most part, it is really fantastic. It may require one to “unlearn” some of the Italian stereotypes brought on by The Godfather and multiple Scorsese films, but it’s probably a testament to the film’s influence that some honest character traits are now recognized as cliches in films depicting Italian-American life. Beyond all of this, is one of the most honest recreations of not only family life in Italy, but life in general. I’ll definitely need to make it a priority to see Visconti’s other films. He’s not on the cinematic level as Olmi or Antonioni, but he does puts the same amount of care into his characters.

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