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Rocco and His Brothers

Image Entertainment

Starring Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot,
Katina Paxinou, and Claudia Cardinale

Written by Luchino Visconti, Suso Cecchi D'Amico,
Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosa,
and Enrico Medioli

Directed by Luchino Visconti

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

Tragedy and movies don't mix. Instead, the medium seems to have been born to have fun. The cinema is a zestful place, full of spirit. It's for action, not reflection. Movies are all dancing, all singing, all the time; they are for laughing your woes away. There's something organically optimistic about the form, and dark clouds don't register. Even monsters tends not to truly threaten, and the conventions of Hollywood always make sure to leave you feeling refreshed, even if that serial killer gets up again before the final freeze-frame.

Of course, this doesn't mean that filmmakers don't struggle against the grain of the medium and attempt tragedy, and there are many excellent "tragic" films, from Forbidden Games to Jude. Luchino Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers is another successful attempt to make a film tragedy.

Visconti, born into wealth as Count don Luchino Visconti di Modrone in 1906 and passing away in 1976 after making about 17 films, was also a man of the theater who staged many operas, as well as the Italian debuts of plays by Williams, Miller, and others. It is a critical convention to say that Visconti brought an operatic quality to his films, but he had also worked with Jean Renoir, and helped introduce neorealism to Italian cinema.

Visconti was a rich Marxist — not a contradictory mindset in Italy at the time — and was essentially a disciple of the theoretician Gramsci, who took a special interest in the economic and social consequences of migration from rural areas to heavily populated cities in Italy. Rocco and his Brothers is the fruit of Visconti's meditations on the same subject. It's a tale about the clash of village and city life set, in part, against the exciting world of boxing.

The film begins in the early '50s when widowed matriarch Rosaria Parondi (Katina Paxinou) arrives suddenly in Milan, with four of her sons, and invades a party her oldest son Vincenzo (Sprios Focas) is attending at the parents of his fiancé (Claudia Cardinale). Fleeing a tense political climate and impoverishment back home, the Parondis discover that the Northern city is not much better. The family fights fragmentation first as Rosaria feuds with the fiancé's family, then as brother Simone (Renato Salvatori) descends into a life of dissipation, which includes a stormy relationship with a hooker named Nadia (Annie Girardot), gambling and drink problems, and a descent into gay hustling.

Only Rocco (a brilliant Alain Delon, though with a dubbed voice), the idealistic middle brother of the five pup litter, seeks to hold the family together and maintain the values of the village. When he falls in love with Nadia two years after she and Simone have broken up, the machinery of tragedy is engaged. It's a tragedy that explores the penalties of doing good in a corrupt world where you really don't know the rules.

*          *          *

Visconti blends melodrama with a dose of neorealism in Rocco and His Brothers with its forays into confused sexual identities, fraternal jealousy, rape, and even murder within the context of a documentary-style appearance. Nino Rota's quiet score, with its echoes of The Godfather, supports the melodrama, while Giuseppe Rotuno's beautiful photography augments the neorealism.

Made in early 1960 and released first in Italy in late 1960, then in the U.S. the following year, Rocco is perhaps Visconti's masterpiece. The Italian authorities just didn't realize it at the time. The film suffered some censorship problems thanks to agonizingly long and intense scenes of a rape and a murder, and further problems occurred when Visconti's Pafundi family, as his characters were originally called, had to have a name change to Parondi due to a lawsuit from some real life Pafundis (the careful viewer can detect darkenings and erasures of the Pafundi name off of posters and boxing robes).

Nevertheless the film was a hit in Europe, and though less successful here, has had its influence. Visconti introduced an operatic approach to cinema with frank gay undercurrents that found gritty complement in the films of Pasolini before devolving into the fripperies of Zeffirelli. Visconti's influence extends far beyond Italian cinema despite his relative unpopularity in America. Scorsese more or less recreated Visconti's 1963 The Leopard in his 1993 The Age of Innocence, and the tense, penitent relationship between Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) in Mean Streets is almost unimaginable without the precedence of Rocco and His Brothers.

Rocco and his Brothers is eminent Criterion material, but this stripped down disc with no supplements comes from Image Entertainment. While doing a noble job of making the film available in America at all, the source print, though offering the complete uncensored movie, does suffer from various speckles, and even what looks to be a hair-in-the-gate effect during the film's last shot. The Dolby Digital mono track is audible, but does little for Rota's score. It's a four-star movie on a lesser disc. Still, what's most important is that this is the complete version of the film.

— D. K. Holm

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