Tre Fratelli (Three Brothers) (1981/2001)

by Stephen Tropiano


Violence and Family History

In his 1981 drama, Three Brothers, director Franco Rossi addresses an array of contemporary social issues in Italy that had their beginnings the 1970s. Among these issues are the exploitation of the working class, the effects of poverty on Italy’s youth, and the rise in urban violence. The ‘70s were a turbulent decade in Italian history. The country was rocked by inflation, political scandals, and acts of terrorism like the 1978 kidnapping and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigade (an ultra-leftist group that advocated violence in their battle against the “establishment,” namely unionists and bureaucrats).

Twenty years later, Three Brothers (an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film) has been released on video. In light of the tragic events of September 11th, the issues and questions the story raises concerning the “legitimacy” of violence and terrorism will undoubtedly resonate with a U.S. audience in 2001. Perhaps even more timely is the film’s imperative, which iterates the importance of not taking the time we have on this earth for granted. As the title characters of this powerful and insightful film discover, we must on occasionally stop what we are doing and reflect on where we’ve come from, where we are now, and the direction our lives are taking.

Tre Fratelli (Three Brothers)

Director: Francesco Rossi
Cast: Philippe Noiret, Michele Placido, Vittorio Mezzogiorno, Andrea Ferreol, Maddalena Crippa


The three Giuranna brothers are given the opportunity to take stock of their lives when they return to their Southern Italian village to bury their mother and attend to their elderly father. The three siblings are now living in the North, where they lead separate and very different lives, both from each other and their rural childhoods. Raffaele (Philipe Noiret), the eldest, is a Roman judge whose participation on an anti-terrorist commission has put his life and the safety of his family in jeopardy. Nicola (Michele Placido), who is twenty years younger, is a factory worker; discontented with the trade unions, he has joined a group of leftist workers that employs terrorist tactics in their fight for better working conditions. Rocco (Vittorio Mezzogiorno), the youngest, is a social worker in an over-crowded, under-funded state correctional facility for juvenile delinquents. Although it’s the death of their mother that brings the fictional brothers together, screenwriters Rossi and Tonino Guerra, who loosely based the film on A. Platonov’s The Third Sun, also use this occasion to bring together characters who essentially represent three major facets of Italian society (the government/workers/social institutions) and their respective ideologies (oligarchy/communism/humanism).

These divides can seem insurmountable. As the village’s schoolteacher observes in a conversation with Raffaele, the “problem with Italy” is that there’s little exchange and no true affinity between institutions, political leaders, and the people. The same can be said for the Giuranna Brothers, who appear uncomfortable spending an evening alone together in the room they once shared as children. Instead of using their short time together to become reacquainted, they spend the eve of their mother’s funeral sharing their opposing ideological views. Unfortunately, the film’s analysis of major social issues such as terrorism, the plight of the working class, and juvenile delinquency is far too didactic to totally engage the viewer. The treatment of such issues is certainly enlightening, yet Rossi’s characters spend far too much of their time together debating one another, and these debates often become repetitive. Consequently, the three brothers seem more like political mouthpieces for their respective platforms than individual characters.

Yet, the film’s true power does not lie in the brothers’ speeches or in the villagers’ heated arguments about urban violence and capital punishment. Instead, its power is in the quieter, subtler moments, when we gain insight into the psyches of the three brothers, who no longer feel connected to their home or their past, and whose feeble attempts to relive that past only remind them how much they have changed.

When Raffaele visits a neighbor’s backyard to see the fig tree where he once played, he’s surprised how much it’s shrunk (the neighbor explains it’s he who has grown). Nicola stops by to visit his ex-girlfriend, who married another man while he was serving in the army. He is still hot for her, but when she insists they don’t fool around on her husband’s bed, he realizes what he’s about to do and turns down her offer. In one of the film’s lighter moments, Rocco recalls standing as a child with his hands in the air as American tanks rolled into the village. Much to the villagers’ surprise at the time, they were greeted by an Italian-American soldier who kissed the ground and gave out hugs to the villagers. The American GI’s seemingly natural affinity for, and connection to, the land of his ancestors offers an interesting contrast to the three native brothers, who have felt radically disconnected from their home since emigrating to the North.

In an effective blend of melodrama and fantasy, Rossi also allows us to see what the future holds for each brother, or rather, how each brother imagines his future. Each character’s “flash forward” is in the style of a different film genre. Nicola imagines a romantic reunion with his estranged wife, after baring his soul to her and explaining how his journey back home has made him realize how much he needs her. In a scene straight out of a political thriller, Raffaele’s nightmare of being gunned down by terrorists becomes reality when he imagines being assassinated while riding a city bus. On a more optimistic note, Rocco’s dream, in the form of musical fantasy set in a city street, depicts the youth of Italy, armed with brooms, sweeping up all the material symbols of oppression: guns, ammunition, cigarettes, hypodermic needles, dollar bills, and crucifixes (the film’s only illusion to the Catholic Church, surprising since it is a major political and social force in Italy). When these symbols are gathered into a pile, Rocco happily sets it on fire.

The optimistic tone of Rocco’s dream of social transformation continues as Rossi shifts back to the present day. In the film’s final scene, we don’t see the brothers coming together through their personal histories, and hopes and fears for the future, but their elderly father and Nicola’s young daughter, walking through the countryside (beautifully captured by Pasqualino de Santis’ sumptuous cinematography). It’s a heavy-handed ending (the two generations, past and present, walking hand in hand toward the future), but certainly fitting in a film that serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of cherishing every moment we have on this earth.

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