We can search films all over the world and we’d be hard-pressed to find films that blend operatic melodrama and social realism so seamlessly as Rocco and His Brothers. Director Luchino Visconti created a film that feels real and cinematic all at once, blending the austerity and minimalism of Italian neorealism with the sentimentality that passionate human drama can evoke. This is one of the most nuanced Italian films I’ve seen, and one that merits a place among the greatest of great films ever made.
- Director: Luchino Visconti
- Writers: Luchino Visconti, Suso Cecchi d’Amico
- Cast: Katina Paxinou, Renato Salvatori, Alain Delon, Max Cartier, Rocco Vidolazzi, Spiros Focas
Rosaria (Katina Paxinou) is the mother of five sons. In mid-20th century Italy, Rosario travels with her sons, Simone (Renato Salvatori), Rocco (Alain Delon), Ciro (Max Cartier) and Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi), to see her eldest son Vincenzo (Spiros Focas) in Milan. Vincenzo has recently become engaged, an event leading to this visit from his family. But immediately as the celebration begins, the meeting of two families is about to reveal some glaring points of contention between them. Family unity will be tested.
Rocco and his Brothers is one of the most mature directing achievements in film history. In terms of handling multiple characters and their relationships to each other, Visconti would be considered a legendary member of world cinema with this film alone. From the opening scene, Visconti establishes intricate human dynamics and doesn’t waste time exploring them. During an intimate family gathering during the earliest minutes of the film, the members in Rocco’s family get enough time for us to get to know each of them. Each character feels developed with his or her own distinctive voice and thoughts. The screenplay is so worthy of praise for this reason. Despite being written by several writers, including Visconti, each character maintains their unique voice without feeling muddled. Also, despite being written by a small committee of writers, the plot can in turn be appreciated its razor sharp focus. Part of the appeal of this film is that we quickly grow to care about everything that is happening, as every shot tells us something important about the characters. In addition to using fluid camera movements, Visconti frames his static shots with precision.
Every element of the production is perfect, making this a masterpiece. From the boxing footage and the tragic family disputes to the more tender moments of family unity, every moment in Rocco feels as though it matters. Rocco’s conversation during the last act is powerful, not only because of Rocco’s decision to leave Nadia to Simone, but also because of the superb acting that reveals emotions in a way that would make Douglas Sirk proud. The entire cast is outstanding, but the performance of French actress, Annie Girardot as Nadia, is especially noteworthy. Her performance is a vibrant portrayal of a prostitute, serving as a linchpin to so many of the emotions felt by Rocco and his family. But Rocco remains the film’s emotional compass, and his tragic journey of highs and lows makes this a cathartic film-watching experience. Considering the tragic undertone of Rocco and His Brothers, the distinctiveness of its locations, and its black and white photography, it reminds me of the The Last Picture Show, another great film featuring families in turmoil dealing a way of life that is gone forever. Of these two films, however, Rocco is darker and more hard hitting. Having been shot within housing projects in Milan in 1960, Rocco is one those films that captures a specific place at a specific moment in time.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Ebert’s description of Visconti and his influence on this film is as eloquent as it gets – “a man of many tempers, styles and beliefs, and you can see them all, fighting for space”. As Ebert reminds us, Visconti was gay, an aristocrat, a Marxist, a director of theater and opera. I mean, how often does one man represent such a variety of ideas. And not just different ideas but ideas so diametrically opposed to each other you’d almost think he himself was a character who could only exist in a movie. Visconti’s other film on Ebert’s list of Great Movies is The Leopard, which I thoroughly enjoyed but had some reservations about its length. With a runtime of nearly three hours, Rocco doesn’t feel as long as it is actually is. There is so much going on in this film that a miniseries or a full season on TV would seem like a more fair way to explore a story so rich in relationships.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like Rocco and His Brothers? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Orpheus
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers this week, he now has 361 under his belt and 2 films left to go.