Rocco and His Brothers (1960) Directed by Luchino Visconti
Far from the meticulous naturalism of Ossessione and the neorealist pragmatism of La Terra Trema but just as close to the veristic textures of life. Luchino Visconti’s hypertrophic tragedy, Rocco and His Brothers, preaches the traditions of melodrama in a hard-hitting and overwhelmingly depressive realism.
The wistful story of a traditional southern Italian family who are devoured by the modernity of an industrialist yet decadent society during the so-called Il Miracolo Economico in Northern Italy in the 60’s; a turgid and potent epic about the perfidy, lust and jealousy that deleteriously spill over into the gregarious household of a family with no patriarch, only a widowed mother and her 5 sons. Rocco and His Brothers is a monument of Italian cinema, but it is also one of the major social chronicles of a post-war Italy recovering its identity as a nation in a period of moral and economic reconstruction. The purposeful irony is that philosophy and politics intervene in the social drama with Visconti’s trenchant melodramatic energy, elaborating complex allegories that weave with sensuality and persuasion a grandiloquent cinematic opera that portrays post-war Italy not as prosperous per se, but as uncertain at times and ominous at others.
Alain Delon, magnificent as always, plays the title character, the aspiring hero of his family, the most upstanding, subtle and conscientious, yet he shares the same imperfections as his brothers. Nevertheless, habits and mores prevail, in certain measures, his sensitive and doting mother, powerfully acted by Greek actress Katina Paxinou, has inculcated in her children the conservative values of the typical Southern family, the fundamentals of family togetherness and hard work. The narration takes us through the vicissitudes of this affable family, where those values embodied in their rural customs are corrupted by the temptations of a rapacious city full of economic possibilities provoking existential ethical implications leading to a moral conflict where good seems to be evil and vice versa. Simone Parodi, played by an unforgettable Renato Salvatori, is one of the five brothers, a vulnerable man easily tempted by the lures of the new world and involved in a toxic relationship with an emotionally irrational prostitute, Nadia, played by Annie Girardot. The beginning of the end of the solid love that makes up this Italian family is announced as a dark prophecy when Nadia falls in love with Rocco, thus triggering a heartbreaking quarrel between brothers, where no one wins and everyone loses in one way or another, in Visconti’s tragedies with tears there is passion and with blood there is emotion, these elements are the sine qua non factors that determine the melodramatic grandeur of his work, ineluctable as they are indispensable.
Luchino Visconti’s political cinema warns us that luxury and indulgence is a pact with the devil, which in theological translation could be read as sooner or later your sins will be judged. The characters in Rocco and His Brothers know that all too well. In its last final notes, which are found in some of the most aggressively operatic sequences Visconti has ever orchestrated, he shows us, with conspicuous ruthlessness, the psychological crumbling of this once humble, benevolent and sympathetic Italian family; after the tragic events, only a family in perpetual sorrow and moral blindness remains.
It is both harrowing and intriguing to see how the parallels between the suburban prosperity of Milan’s industrial triangle and the poverty of this traditional southern family collide harshly, not in socio-economic aspects but in moral dimensions. Decadence is the unwavering fetish of the elegant filmmaker Luchino Visconti, it may not have the self-analytical character that his pictures about lavish aristocrats have, however the parameters are the same; Visconti exhaustively explores reality, beauty and art, whether through socio-political or simply ideological methods, Rocco and His Brothers is an essential masterpiece. The novelistic language of this tragedy may be that of an overblown, sentimental prose but the language of the systematic camera that films it is that of a cultivated and compelling poetry.