Luchino Visconti’s national epic looks and plays better than ever. A Southern family relocates to Milan, and each of the sons reacts differently to life in the big city. It’s one of Italy’s most emotional film experiences.
Rocco and His Brothers
1960 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 177 m. / Rocco e i suoi fratelli / Street Date July 10, 2018 / 39.95
Starring: Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, Katina Paxinou, Alessandra Panaro, Spiros Focás, Max Cartier, Claudia Cardinale, Nino Castelnuovo, Enzo Fiermonte, Suzy Delair, Paolo Stoppa.
Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Film Editor: Mario Serandrei
Production Designer: Mario Garbuglia
Original Music: Nino Rota
Written by Luchino Visconti, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosa and Enrico Medioli
Produced by Giuseppe Bordogni, Goffredo Lombardo
Directed by Luchino Visconti
By 1960 Roberto Rossellini was almost finished with big screen feature work, but Italy’s other neorealist pioneer Luchino Visconti was just getting started on a series of masterpieces. Only in the last ten years or so have we been given quality video on some of Visconti’s greatest pictures — The Leopard, Senso, etc. We first caught up with his return to neo-realism, Rocco and His Brothers, on a pale laserdisc in the early 1990s. I have to admit that I appreciate the film a lot more now. It’s a powerful, unsentimental family saga that hasn’t a single cliched moment.
The penniless Parondi family, mother Rosaria (Katina Paxinou) and her four young sons, arrive in Milan looking for a new life after their father’s death trying to make a living farming in their Southern province of Lucania. An older son already in Milan, Vincenzo (Spiros Focás) is close to cementing his engagement to Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale) and living with her family. Fiercely attending to the needs of her brood, Rosaria breaks up the engagement to make Vincenzo find them a place to live. The older boys stay with mom but as strangers in a big city, go in separate directions. The unscrupulous Simone (Renato Salvatori) becomes a boxer while picking up girls. The serious and studious Ciro (Max Cartier) studies and eventually becomes a factory auto mechanic. The sensitive, virtuous Rocco (Alain Delon, dubbed into Italian) works odd jobs.
The story charts several years of events that make clear the bonds of family as well as the tensions that strain relationships. Simone takes up with Nadia (Annie Giradot), a prostitute. When she leaves him he becomes something of a thug and lets his boxing career slide. Vincenzo and Ginetta eventually marry, but against Rosaria’s wishes. After a stint in the army Rocco grows close to Nadia, and his goodness inspires her to change her life. But just as hope and happiness seems possible, Simone discovers what’s going on and becomes destructively jealous and vindictive. The better athlete Rocco becomes a boxing star with the intention of salvaging his brother’s life. But nobody’s plans turn out exactly as hoped.
Country cousins trying to make it in the big city is a theme from just about every culture, but Visconti’s tale of the Parondis takes none of the melodramatic turns one might expect. The woefully undereducated hicks from the south are naïve about modern living in an industrial metropolis, and their problems are treated without undue sentiment. Suiting up at the gym in their long-john underwear, the boys don’t understand when they’re laughed at. But they have a sense of dignity and a fresh optimism that places them in good stead in their struggle to subsist. The epic sense of Visconti’s approach has depth and breadth; we’re not likely to forget the party scene where Ginetta sees her engagement broken up by her beau’s ruthless mother. The boxing story is particularly well handled, with Simone eager to be made a star, but too slow in the ring and too lazy to improve himself. We particularly gravitate toward the humble, open-hearted Rocco, who continually finds his goodness put on trial.
Was it this picture that made Alain Delon a star, or was it the same year’s Purple Noon, which carried a big image of a shirtless Delon on its poster? The most honorable Parondi brother is also the most naïve. Rocco interacts with such thoughtful shyness and responds to cynicism with such direct honesty that he elicits trust in all directions. He melts the heart of the hardboiled Nadia, and the transformation she undergoes is the most uplifting thing in the movie.
Visconti uses his three hours to develop his characters without the usual screenwriter’s tricks of time compression. Renato Salvatori’s Simone would be a total villain in anyone else’s picture, but the character’s gradual evolution from insecure ambition to brutish cruelty is charted in an arc that never condemns him outright. Simone’s dishonest nature is encouraged when he finds that his good looks allow him to attract and deceive women. His most terrible crimes happen with the charitable support of his ‘good’ brother. Rocco’s traditional bias and his inability to see anything bad in Simone inadvertently enables his brother’s crimes. It’s an interesting dynamic, and it keeps Rocco and his Brothers from becoming just another soap opera.
Standouts in the cast play equally un-sentimentalized characters: Katina Paxinou (For Whom the Bell Tolls) is an emotional cyclone of an Italian Mama, and her survival instincts make things tough for the women with whom her boys become involved. A happy party turns into a disaster because of her thin skin, causing a never-forgotten conflict between the Parondis and Ginetta’s family. Mama Parondi’s screaming dramatic fireworks with Nadia are gripping because we know enough about both women to feel the tragedy: Mama is far too set in her ways to accept Nadia is a good woman without options.
Foreign film fans will appreciate the glowing performance of Annie Giradot, from Mario Monicelli’s The Organizer and Visconti’s episode in Le streghe, ‘La strega bruciata viva.’ For a short time her Nadia is riding high with romantic hopes. Visconti represents this with a wonderful image of Nadia and Rocco in a Milan streetcar, when the city appears to spin around them (top image). By the final act Nadia has so thoroughly given up on herself, that all her energy is devoted to lashing out at those around her.
Renato Salvatore makes Simone less a victim of fate than a selfish lout just following his true nature. He’s a little more familiar to American viewers, with his performances in Two Women, ‘Z’ and Burn! The future superstar Alain Delon is excellent as the sweet and devoted Rocco. He blames the family’s woes on the city, and when disillusioned wants nothing more than to return to Lucania. We’re far more used to seeing Delon as a ruthless character in pictures like Purple Noon and Melville’s Le Samouraï.
Claudia Cardinale had already appeared in fifteen pictures but for most American viewers this was her debut. Although a relatively minor player, Cardinale’s Ginetta is given enough attention to chart the life of an overprotected ‘good girl’ in Milan. The beauty could have her pick of men, yet is pushed around and hounded by her own brothers, who are all too happy when her engagement to Vincenzo falls apart. It’s no wonder that Ginetta makes strict demands of Vincenzo (‘you will always ask, not take’). With Mama Parondi so set against her, it looks as if getting pregnant is the only way for Ginetta to get her man. Cardinale immediately proceeded to a series of glamorous, quality star vehicles.
The sprawling Rocco and his Brothers frequently takes forward time-leaps of months and years. Critics trying to ‘explain’ Luchino Visconti remind us that Coppola’s Godfather films use the same epic formula, History is not a succession of rituals or scenes of people reading telegrams being delivered, but a careful grouping of complex scenes that seem unscripted, alive. What looks like location work is often an enormous, ornate studio set. Everything is exceedingly natural with the possible exception of the youngest Parondi brother, a child who never seems to grow. At a full three hours, the show was surely exhibited in two parts; a full-stop fade out after Rocco’s military service is the likely spot where the intermission fell.
A secondary pleasure is simply soaking up the film’s portrait of life in working-class Milan in 1960. Ten years have passed, but the city still resembles the cold, somewhat treeless expanse of open spaces seen in De Sica’s Miracle in Milan. Beautifully directed in the housing projects and broad city streets, the film has accrued historical interest simply by showing how people lived. The Parondis begin as beneficiaries of the state. They don’t know how they’ll ever going to find a home they can afford, until they get clued in on how struggling families game the system. They take an apartment they can’t afford, knowing that they’ll be thrown out. Only after being evicted does one qualify for low-cost or free government housing.
The Milestone Cinematheque’s Blu-ray of Rocco and His Brothers is a prestige release of one of Italy’s proudest film exports. Giuseppe Rotunno’s B&W cinematography can finally be appreciated in this quality 4K restoration, in a proper widescreen aspect ratio. The film’s look is naturalistic, finding beauty in scenes without artificial lighting or stylized designs. Nino Rota’s unobtrusive music score peeks in now and then with light themes, but the prevailing memory of the film is the Southern ballad sung over the main titles and end credits.
This Italian-remastered edition is also ten minutes longer than the previous DVD (2001) from Image Entertainment. An opening text card tells us that a couple of shots censored from original Italian release prints have been restored as well.
A second disc is set aside for Milestone’s extras. A generous set of archived cast and crew interviews yield much interesting information. The apartment building with the courtyard, where the Parondis wake up to find that it is snowing, was a set. Their surprise lasts only a minute, unlike the wondrous reaction Federico Fellini gives such events in his films. Annie Giradot stresses how the movie made her career, and says that the murder scene was censored in Venice, and thought too rough in France as well. Giuseppe Rotunno stresses the extensive night shooting required by the story, which mandated enormous lighting setups in cold weather. Both Rotunno and the designer say that scenes prepared for filming in the Southern province of Lucania, were eventually dropped.
Screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico said that writer Vasco Pratolini contributed to the development of the Dostoyevsky-like story; Visconti’s previous film White Nights was based on the Russian writer’s work as well. D’Amico based the character of Rocco on a sweet, sad Calabrian migrant she found working in Germany. D’Amico was greatly impressed by Alain Delon; she compares his magnetic presence to that of Marlene Dietrich.
In a separate new interview the Visconti biographer Caterina D’Amico gives a long talk about the collaboration between the director and her mother.
Martin Scorsese provides an introduction, and a set of production outtakes mostly shows the film moments that were censored, as well as a weak attempt to use opticals to correct the misspelling of ‘Parondi’ in some on-screen posters. I think I may have seen the name misspelled on a door as well. Suso Cecchi D’Amico mentions that the family name had to be changed so as not to offend a judge.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Rocco and His Brothers
Supplements: Video introduction by Martin Scorsese; New video interview with Caterina d’Amico, daughter of legendary screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico; Video interview with cast and crew; before & after restoration featurette; Original production outtakes
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 25, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson