Rocco And His Brothers

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Rocco And His Brothers
"The taut, literate screenplay is always cohesive and displays a frankness regarding the earthier aspects of the story that a Hollywood film of the time could simply never have countenanced."

There are good screen actors. Then there are a few male leads so handsome and charismatic that the camera doesn’t so much love them as adore them. And then there’s Alain Delon.

One of the truly great cinematic presences, as well as a truly talented and versatile actor, it’s always a joy to see him on the big screen. And Rocco And His Brothers, beautifully restored for this year’s London Film Festival, is one of his finest three hours.

Copy picture

The film’s far from a one-man show, however. A sweeping, meaty, ensemble drama that shines a cold light on post-war Milan while still having the universal resonance of Greek tragedy, it’s a reminder of how much talent there was on both sides of the camera in Italian cinema at the time. And offers further proof (if it were needed) of Visconti’s place in the pantheon of great directors.

From the opening scene, as a plaintive folk ballad heralds the arrival of a train from the South into the faded (and obviously freezing cold) opulence of Milan’s main railway station, beautifully shot by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, you know you’re in good hands – but also that the journey probably won’t be a smooth one.

Among the passengers are Mama Parondi (Katina Paxinou) a prematurely aged widow who’s decided to bring her sons north to find a better life in the big city. They’re due to be met by Vicenzo (Spiros Focas), oldest of the five, who’s already moved up to pave the way. He’s got himself a job, a fiancée (a young and radiant Claudia Cardinale) and is firmly ensconced in the bosom of her well-to-do family. So much so that when his lot arrive, Mama volubly bemoaning his lateness and demanding they be housed for the foreseeable, a hilarious scene ensues where the Milan bourgeoise make it plain there’s no room for these hayseeds to replicate a rural extended family and an embarrassed and torn Vicenzo has to find them alternative digs.

But an elderly work colleague informs him of the traditional route to permanent housing for rural arrivals – find any old place to stay for a few months, get behind with the rent and wait for ‘City Hall’ to find you a place when you’re evicted. Soon the Parondis are ensconced in a crowded basement of a grim tower block on the edge of the city and the sons have to go out and find work.

Rocco (Delon) gets a job at a dry-cleaners but also hangs out at the local boxing gym with his elder brother Simone (Renato Salvatori), a charming dreamer who’s decided he’ll make his fortune as a champion prize fighter. Ciro (Max Cartier) knuckles down to night classes and gets an apprenticeship at the Alfa Romeo plant, while Luca (Rocca Vidolazzi), who’s still only a boy, stays at home to help Mama – and act as a silent witness to his brothers’ contrasting fortunes, which graphically illustrate the pleasures and dangers of big city life.

These fortunes are inextricably bound up with that of Nadia (Annie Girardot), a prostitute who lives in a neighbouring apartment. From her first appearance, she personifies the seductive glamour of the city. She’s hard-headed about her situation and is desperate to escape from her disapproving father but, like the brothers, believes Milan offers the chance of a better life.

She first sets her cap at Vicenzo, but when he makes it clear he’s serious about his engagement, finds herself drawn to the freewheeling, ever-optimistic Simone. His boxing career takes off but he finds himself exposed to some shady characters and begins a slow and tragic descent into the darkness.

Nadia finds comfort and sympathy from the gentle, ever-forgiving Rocco, and the two begin a relationship which again seems to offer the chance of happiness. Rocco tries his hand at boxing too and his success begins to eclipse that of Simone, weakened by drink, hard living and his own refusal to listen to good advice.

Eventually Simone’s jealousy towards his brother leads to a horrifying act of revenge – after which the family’s lives will ever be the same again. And each of the brothers will find himself torn between the twin bonds of love and family duty…

The film grips for every minute of its epic running time, as the protagonists’ fortunes rise and fall and it becomes increasingly clear that some of them, at least, are doomed to tragedy. But it’s far from a heavy handed morality tale. Each of the characters are rounded, believable human beings, trying to make sense of a new world where the old certainties of family and community no longer apply.

Visconti orchestrates the twists and turns with effortless assurance but also has the eye of a true poet of cinema for the landscapes of Milan. The city almost seems a character in itself, from the bright lights of the shopping arcades and cafes to the sleazy menace of the boxing clubs (surely an inspiration for Scorsese when he was shooting Raging Bull) and drinking dens where Simone sees his talent, and his good nature, slowly polluted.

Rotunno, who was also the go-to lensman for Vittorio De Sica and Fellini (and who supervised the new restoration) creates a memorable atmosphere not only with the menacing, atmospheric night scenes but also the moments when the camera pulls back to reveal the grandeur of Milan cathedral (in a memorably moving scene) or the sunlit modernity of the Alfa Romeo plant. Almost every minute of the film yields a memorable image.

But it’s always at the service of a compelling story. Apart from the three principal writers the credits list too many contributors to mention. But the taut, literate screenplay is always cohesive and displays a frankness regarding the earthier aspects of the story that a Hollywood film of the time could simply never have countenanced – and even the Italian censors found a little too strong; another reason to see the restoration is the inclusion of a few previously-cut scenes.

And the main performances are universally superb. Delon is magnetic, of course, but also pulls off the tricky job of making a genuinely good and forgiving (perhaps overly so) character rounded and believable. Salvatori and Girardot (who became a real-life item and went on to grace the higher ends of French and Italian cinema throughout their careers) are equally compelling, and in truth their relationship is the heart of the film, for better and (eventually) worse. The film could just as easily have been titled ‘Simone And His Brothers’, or indeed ‘Nadia And The Deeply Flawed Men She Has The Misfortune To Meet’.

Add a top-notch score by Nino Rota and you’ve got an almost perfect package. The piled-on agony of the final reel does veer into melodrama a touch. And Paxou’s woebegone Italian Mama, always happy to make a drama out of a crisis, is something of a cliché – though her boys undoubtedly give her plenty to lament about.

But long before you remember all that, you’ll remember the beautiful images of Milan; or one of the bone-crunching, gripping fight scenes; or the moment where Delon and Girardot hold hands on a tram and radiate the simple joy of togetherness. In the pretty peerless canon of Visconti’s work, this still deserves a pre-eminent place. But don’t think it’s some arid, pretentious ‘art house’ work. It’s full-blooded, satisfying drama, as rich and rewarding as a good glass of Italian red.

Reviewed on: 14 Oct 2015
Share this with others on...
Rocco And His Brothers packshot
A family from the rural south fight for unity and purpose in post-war Milan.
Amazon link

Read more Rocco And His Brothers reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray *****

Director: Luchino Visconti

Writer: Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosa, Enrico Medioli, Luchino Visconti

Starring: Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, Katina Paxinou, Max Cartier, Spiros Focas, Rocco Vidolazzi, Claudia Cardinale, Roger Hanin, Paola Stoppa, Suzy Delair

Year: 1960

Runtime: 172 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Italy/France


Search database:


If you like this, try:

The Leopard
Plein Soleil