The Crossroads of Reality and Melodrama in ‘Rocco and His Brothers’

Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers is an epic of postwar Italy and a melodrama of seismic proportions boasting great photography and performances.

Rocco and His Brothers
Luchino Visconti
Milestone Films
10 Jul 2018

Perhaps no parallel example exists of a modern film that’s been so acclaimed and so impossible to see as Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli) (1960). Until this glittering 2015 restoration, now available on Blu-ray from Milestone Films, it has only circulated sporadically in ragged, censored prints that challenged the limits of the watchable. At last, it looks like a wicked fairy’s spell has been lifted and the sleeping beauty has revived, although traces of the curse remain at the edges.

Apart from calling the film an epic of postwar Italy and a melodrama of seismic proportions boasting great photography and performances, it’s impossible to discuss Rocco and His Brothers without mentioning spoilers. In any case, potential viewers must be prepared for possible deal-breakers in the narrative.

The film’s credited source is a book of stories by Giovanni Testori set in the margins of Milanese society. If the title recalls Thomas Mann’s novel Joseph and His Brothers, which in turn evokes the Biblical story, that’s on purpose. Also deliberate is the decision to make the “saintly” self-sacrificing Rocco into an alter ego of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, with the central romantic idea patterned after that novel’s triangle of Prince Myshkin, Nastasya Filippovna and Rogozhin. This latter parallel was apparently the decision of Suso Cecchi d’Amico, one of the most important writers in Italian cinema and a woman who left her prints on more of the country’s milestones than any other single writer.

The opening credits rumble upon us in Milan’s train station, shot by Giuseppe Rotunno as a series of moving traps: an elevator, grillwork, the inside of the train with its misted windows looking obscurely onto what its passengers hope is a fabulous future yet is already forbidding and lonely. The mother and four sons belong to a social phenomenon that inspired the film: the migration of southerners from their poverty-stricken farms to the mysterious wealthy modernity of Italy’s northern cities, especially Milan with its automobile factories.

In this sense, Visconti conceived the film as a sociopolitical sequel to his neorealist film La Terra Trema (1948), which was about those southern families. Now they’re arriving in an urban wonderland in search of opportunity, though the story will reveal how they sell themselves into forms of slavery that debase them and pull them apart. It begins with a kind of bureaucratic finagle that “all you southerners do”, as one character explains. The family should rent a room for a few months, then default in order to be evicted and claim public housing from the government. In other words, the condition of life must be a scam.

This is a very “comedy Italian style” gesture of satire, after the opening sequence has featured the family’s unexpected arrival causing a ruckus with the older son’s marriage plans and a lot of idiomatically raised voices and gestures on the part of the grieving, fierce, self-dramatizing matriarch (Katina Paxinou). After this sort of prologue, the film will divide itself into five chapters, named for each son from oldest to youngest, and each handled primarily by a different screenwriter, although the story is so tightly wound that the film never concentrates neatly on a single son.

Eldest son Vincenzo (Spiros Focás) isn’t so pivotal. He already lives in Milan and works in construction, thus a human beam in the frantic “economic miracle” throwing up skyscrapers everywhere. With his marriage to Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale in an early role), he’s aiming for middle-class respectability with his own offspring.

Also less pivotal are fourth and fifth sons Ciro (Max Cartier) and Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi). Ciro adjusts quickly to the city with his high school diploma and is mocked for being proud of his job at the Alfa Romeo plant, that purveyor of sleek modernity, where he’s one of a sea of workers in identically stenciled overalls. The plant’s rich history links the Mussolini era to union unrest. Luca never gets taller during the two years of story, and that’s par for child characters who function more or less as accessories. Everyone caresses him in concern for their place in his heart, since he represents the hopeful unknown future. If anyone grows up to tell their story, it will be he.

That brings us to Simone (Renato Salvatori, previously a specialist in comedies) and Rocco (Alain Delon, previously nobody). Both become boxers, people whose job is to pound each other for sport but really for money and really for the profits of their “owners”. In return, they receive public fame, their faces decorating posters like movie stars. From the start, the beefy and more promising Simone shows a propensity for thievery and exploitation that will dwindle and fritter his future, while the slender and quieter Rocco shows steadiness and determination.

Yes, this is partly a boxing movie, a link in the chain from Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul (1947) and Mark Robson’s Champion (1949) to Martin Scorcese‘s Raging Bull (1980). It’s less about the “racket” than these films, although exploitation is clearly delineated, and you don’t need a punch in the face to see that Visconti’s film and Simone’s brutality influenced Scorcese’s conception of Jake La Motta just as much as the expressive Hollywood films. As a sign of homage and his Film Foundation’s participation in this restoration, Scorcese provides an unimportant introduction on the disc.

Nadia (Annie Girardot), named for Nastasya Filippovna, is introduced early as a prostitute known to Vincenzo. Avoiding her angry unseen father (how symbolic can you get?), who’s shouting somewhere in the same tenement, she’s initially cheerful and philosophical, asking Vincenzo to imagine how the world would be if women like her disappeared. She drifts into an affair with Simone while stressing that they’re free and unattached, that they owe each other nothing, so she comes across as very modern, more modern than Simone can handle.

As Suso Cecchi d’Amico explains in an archival interview on the bonus disc, Nadia isn’t only Nastasya but is conceived as a symbol for the city itself. She’s not evil because “that would be too simple”. In fact, “she’s a good person”, but her symbolic function as The City is such that her interactions with the family can only bring on corruption. In one of the film’s most startling and queasy revelations, that Simone too has been prostituting himself to wealthy men, she and he seem to meld decisively into two halves of the same symbol, which is why it becomes impossible on that level for them to separate.

But separate they do after an initial idyll in which we see them having a between-bouts bedroom conversation, their heads askew on the bed in different directions, and later leaning into each other on the wall of a fancy exclusive hotel. As explained in a lengthy interview by Caterina d’Amico, daughter of Cecchi d’Amico and author of a Visconti biography, their chemistry in these scenes derives from the fact that the actors immediately fell in love and would get married, and this “complicates” the subtext of the plot for the viewer.

Simone and Nadia separate because she’s tossed in jail for more than a year, concurrent with Rocco’s being drafted into a stint of military service. When Nadia bumps into him, she makes the explicit connection between their compulsory services to the state. She also falls in love with his beauty and optimism, and they embark on an affair while she decides to drop her profession and become a secretary.

After his service, Rocco has become the better and more promising boxer while Simone has suffered a beating that made him “throw in the towel”. When Simone finds out that Rocco and Nadia are together, thanks to the malice of his barfly associates, he performs a terrible revenge on them that became the center of the film’s controversies, and here is where the spoilers must come in.

Simone performs a double assault, each on multiple levels and each functioning as half of a larger atrocity. In raping Nadia in front of Rocco, he’s punishing both of them and really all three of them in “staking his claim”. Nadia is traumatized by the rape and by the fact that Rocco couldn’t bring himself to interfere against his big brother but stood by helplessly. She’d wanted Rocco to “rescue” her, in the rape and in her life at large, but he perceives his “desperate” and “suffering” brother as most in need of rescue to save him from destruction. Rocco’s reactions will lead to more colossal tragedy.

We’re certainly familiar with the reality of women who return to their abusers for lack of options, but Rocco’s encouraging Nadia to return to Simone is what will seem incomprehensible to many modern viewers, as it so flies in the face of today’s sensibility. It’s getting at something recidivist about men, about brothers, about the peasant south, but it’s also getting at Rocco’s stature as “the Holy Fool” who believes all men are brothers and our concern isn’t legal justice but how to help each other. It’s a tribute to the depth of Nadia’s conception and Girardot’s embodiment of it that she projects her loathing upon both brothers and upon her own helplessness even while allowing herself to be tossed about by their whims and her own physical responses.

And that’s only half the assault! In the longer and even bloodier section, the brothers fight until Rocco is left a shivering wreck on the sidewalk, as conveyed in dark longshot on empty streets occasionally illuminated by headlights. In a sense, Nadia’s rape had been the first act to this brotherly bout, a more extreme case of their professional sparring. Their “resolution” will occur at the end, after the full revelations and culminations of Simone’s equally self-loathing behavior, when Simone throws himself on a bed and Rocco throws himself on top of him, the two of them hugging and caressing each other’s faces as their bodies heave with sobs. It’s Simone’s second bed-sharing scene.

Earlier, when the brothers in separate beds all slept in the same room, there had been a moment when Rocco gave Simone a message from Nadia, and the scene ended with Rocco — or rather, with Alain Delon as beautiful animal — luxuriantly stretching his right arm above his head, exposing his armpit hair, and gazing limpidly straight into the camera. It’s a breathtaking moment that bursts right out of the frame, a moment of a filmmaker’s fetishization of a glamorous star that compares with Josef von Sternberg’s iconic presentations of Marlene Dietrich.

Cecchi d’Amico links Delon and Dietrich in her interview, and it must have been willful on the part of the homosexual Visconti. He’d already emulated Sternberg in the early party sequence, when the camera self-consciously pushes aside streamers that drift into the viewer’s face. Caterina d’Amico states that the one scene Visconti added to the finished screenplay was the pivotal scene of Simone’s fight with his male “john” (Roger Hanin), the expression of physicality in a manner acceptable to men (combat) as displacement of the unacceptable (sex).

The strange mood of this darkly lit scene is intensified by the film’s only technically clumsy element, the matting of a TV image when the man turns on the set. The program seems to be some kind of art appreciation show, with static Renaissance images of religious import gliding across the small screen. The TV is as much a status symbol and consumer commodity as the “white telephones” that synecdochally defined a type of Italian studio cinema, so the TV-object signifies many things at once while Nino Rota’s music, supposedly part of the art program, hovers over the scene.

When adapting James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice into his debut film Ossessione (1943), which is often credited with kicking off neorealism, Visconti interpolated a bisexual episode into his drifting protagonist’s story. It wasn’t in the book, notwithstanding that Cain would later write a whole novel about a repressed homosexual, Serenade (and that element was suppressed from the 1956 Hollywood version starring Mario Lanza), so it’s uncanny that Visconti would have the brass to introduce such a thing. Maybe it’s “open to interpretation”, but we’re just going to come out and call it a pick-up, and that implication is among the reasons that movie was banned in Fascist Italy. Here Visconti revived the theme, and again it contributed to a film’s scandalous reputation.

As Caterina d’Amico says, it’s difficult today to grasp how 1960 European audiences were hit by the film’s violence and sordidness, what an embarrassing and disturbing scandal it was for Italy. Certain violent scenes were censored by being blacked out while audiences heard the soundtrack, which must have had the ironic effect of inflaming imaginations even more, and this current restoration is only possible because the negative wasn’t touched.

The remaining traces of censorship relate to the family’s name. Cecchi d’Amicho had met a migrant worker named Pafundi from the southern region of Lucania, so she gave the family that name and origin. An actual judge named Pafundi threatened to sue the film, so the family was redubbed Parondi and the onscreen posters were altered in post-production. In the negative, the posters still say Pafundi and the restorers considered letting it stand but decided to “preserve” what d’Amicho calls “the memory of the stupidity of the censorship of the time” by digitally altering the posters.

This has an unfortunately glaring effect in the final shot, when the viewer’s eye is distracted by all the shimmering while Luca ritually caresses each poster of Rocco. It’s still a heart-swelling moment. In that shot, the posters of Rocco transcend their story’s meaning to become posters of Delon, the star created by this film and the simultaneous release of René Clément’s Purple Noon (1960).

Girardot’s career also launched here, cast by Visconti after he’d worked with her on stage in Two for the Seesaw with Jean Marais. She became one of France’s most popular stars and a feminist icon for the strength and independence of her roles. She married Salvatore in 1962 and they separated but never divorced. Cardinale became an international star and worked with Visconti again in The Leopard (1963) and Sandra (1965), the latter another of those works now difficult to see.

Rotunno’s deep-focus black and white photography provides ravishing images, like the steam at the train station and the snow in the courtyard. In his interview, he mentions his working relationship with Visconti and states that the aesthetic beauty of the image is always least important in comparison with the scene’s emotional and narrative clarity. Still, his often restlessly moving camera conveys a sensuality and an enveloping sense of the city’s fateful bustle, for this thing seems to have a cast of hundreds in every scene. It seems to star all of Milan.

Perhaps certain outdoor scenes use real citizens, but most scenes employ extras to pack the boxing matches and street fights and tenements, with people often visible through distant windows contributing to the city’s life. In his interview, designer Mario Garbuglia makes it clear how studio-constructed the movie was, of a piece with Visconti’s steady movement away from the neorealism he may have invented for practical purposes and towards his more literary and epic studio conceits, just as all Italy along with its cinema was gradually evolving from the ruined streets of neorealism to the sleek middle-class constructs of “the white telephone”. Besides, even Visconti’s neorealist films had literary sources, so these distinctions exist more in the minds of critics than in the artist.

Cecchi d’Amico created the treatment, a lengthy one, in collaboration with Visconti and Vasco Pratolini, a prominent novelist of working-class subjects. It seems that Visconti wanted to film a Pratolini novel about the tragedy of two brothers and wasn’t able to do so, and therefore this film, among its many influences, was a kind of backdoor realization of that. Ironically, that novel would later be filmed by Valerio Zurlini as Family Diary (1962), also shot by Rotunno and also produced by Goffredo Lombardo for Titanus Films, like Rocco.

Cecchi d’Amico and Visconti shared the screenplay with younger writers Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosa (concerned with the “anthropology” and props of the family’s origins) and Enrico Medioli. According to Caterina d’Amico, Rocco dies in the original treatment, which would probably have linked this boxing movie even to King Vidor’s The Champ (1931), but much of the story got pared away, although the result is still three hours.

Rota’s score only employs one or two passages in the “circus” idiom associated with his Fellini films. For the most part, he employs more standard (if lush) passages judiciously, and much of the score is presented diegetically as popular background music in various venues for a film forever poised between reality and melodrama.

So clear is this restoration that when Nadia lounges on a bed reading movie magazines, we can see the headlines about Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), one iconic modern classic inadvertently (?) quoting another. The second disc of extras includes various interviews, a sample of restoration comparisons, and a side-by-side presentation of the censored versions of certain scenes, with a black screen blotting out certain passages.

RATING 10 / 10