Rocco and His Brothers (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by David Sterritt
Produced by Goffredo Lombardo; directed by Luchino Visconti; screenplay by Luchino Visconti, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosa, and Enrico Medioli; cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno; art direction by Mario Garbuglia; edited by Mario Serandrei; music by Nino Rota; starring Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, Katina Paxinou, Spiros Focas, Claudia Cardinale, Max Cartier, Rocco Vidolazzi, and Nino Castelnuovo. Blu-ray and DVD, B&W, 177 min., 1960. A Milestone Films release.
Luchino Visconti arguably founded the Italian neorealist movement with his brooding Ossessione in 1943, yet the great heyday of that important school was gone when he premiered Rocco and His Brothers at the Venice Film Festival in 1960. There’s a little irony in this, since Rocco and His Brothers and its 1948 predecessor La terra trema fall more comfortably under the neorealist rubric than most other Visconti films, which tend to be more sweeping, romantic, and operatic than the label ordinarily implies.
And even the bracingly raw Rocco and His Brothers has artificial elements aplenty, as attested by extras in Milestone’s new Blu-ray edition of the picture. Conceived as a sort of semi-sequel to La terra trema, which was shot in a Sicilian fishing village with a wholly nonprofessional cast, Rocco and His Brothers was made in a very different manner—penned by half a dozen writers, acted by stars-in-the-making Alain Delon, Annie Girardot, and Claudia Cardinale, and photographed largely on manufactured sets. It’s a lasting tribute to Visconti, cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, and other members of the creative team that an unblinking sense of moment-to-moment verisimilitude shimmers through scene after scene, punctuated with enough grim violence to set the censors squawking even before its official debut.
Rocco and His Brothers grew from Visconti’s wish to explore the vicissitudes of a poor family that migrates from Lucania in the rural south to Milan in the industrialized north, looking for a more prosperous life. He and his writers elaborated on this theme by borrowing from ancient and modern literary sources. One was the story of Joseph and his brothers, as found in the Old Testament rather than Thomas Mann’s 1933–43 novel, despite Visconti’s strong interest in the latter. Another was Fyodor Dostoevsky’s towering 1869 novel The Idiot, in which the inexperienced Myshkin and the beautiful Nastasya have a deep and complex relationship. The influence of the biblical story is clear from Visconti’s title, and the Dostoevsky characters underlie the figures of Simone Parondi (Renato Salvatori), the second-oldest brother, and Nadia (Girardot), a prostitute loved by Simone and the slightly younger Rocco (Delon) in the film. The movie unfolds in sections named after the brothers, whose sometimes perplexed but often forceful mother, Rosaria (Katina Paxinou), is also a strong presence, describing herself as the hand to which the five fingers are attached. The oldest brother, Vincenzo (Spiros Focas), is already settled in Milan and engaged to the lovely Ginetta (Cardinale) when the rest of the family arrives. The youngest brothers, Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi) and Ciro (Max Cartier), play smaller roles in the story.
Then as now, entering the sports arena was seen as a potential way for disadvantaged young people—especially male ones embedded in a macho culture—to clamber a few rungs higher on the socioeconomic ladder. Simone and Rocco give this a try, hanging out at a boxing gym and angling for a chance at glory in the ring. Simone does this eagerly, encouraged by Rosaria and by Nadia, who becomes his lover after happily married Vincenzo turns her down. Rocco does it to support Rosaria and keep an eye on Simone, whose increasingly irresponsible ways make serious trouble more likely by the day. Rocco also becomes Simone’s rival with Nadia, who responds more readily to his innate decency than to Simone’s reckless, sometimes brutal personality. The climax erupts with two kinds of violence: Rocco pounds his way to a title in the prizefighting ring, and Simone murders Nadia when she concludes that laboring as a prostitute is preferable to remaining with him.
It was Simone’s brutality toward Nadia that sparked trouble with provincial authorities when the film was in production and further trouble with censors when it was finished. The climactic rape and murder was scheduled for shooting in a red-light zone of Milan that Visconti had scoped out as a perfect setting, but local dignitaries got wind of the scene’s scandalous content and refused permission; making a virtue of necessity, Visconti moved the shoot to an exceedingly desolate-looking area on the outskirts of Rome that couldn’t possibly have been surpassed by the Milan location for unadulterated bleakness. The scene emerged with a sledgehammer impact unprecedented in Italian film, virtually inviting the country’s Roman Catholic moral guardians to interfere with its release. Faced with demands for the removal of this scene and three others, producer Goffredo Lombardo reached a compromise whereby two of the scenes would be deleted and the other two—including the murder episode, which even the censors realized was indispensable to the narrative—would have their images blacked out while the soundtrack proceeded on its own. Fortunately for film history, the original negative was preserved in its entirety, and the restored version on the Milestone disc runs to its full 177-minute length.
A further problem arose when the original name of the fictional family in the film, Pafundi, fell afoul of a real-life judge who also bore that name. He had heard that the just-completed movie contained all sorts of disreputable stuff, and he declared that if it besmirched his moniker by going into theaters, he’d see the filmmakers in court. The producers caved, changing the name to Parondi by redubbing bits of dialogue and using 1960-vintage techniques to modify its appearance on the boxing posters scattered throughout the picture. The redubbing isn’t noticeable—slapdash dubbing is the order of the day in Italian productions—but the posters look a bit peculiar once you’re alerted to the alteration.
Pretty much all neorealist movies diverge from neorealist ideals as expounded by theorists like Cesare Zavattini—neorealism was more a set of aspirations than a set of rules—and Visconti shaped reality to the measure of his vision whenever the occasion warranted. Thus we find Mario Garbuglia, the production designer for Rocco and His Brothers, cheerfully disclosing in a Milestone extra that the film’s main interiors “had nothing to do with neorealism.” In fact they were “invented,” he says, adding that he built them to perform deliberately theatrical functions, as when he constructed the courtyard of the family’s tenement to emphasize the constant presence of neighbors who serve as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the main action transpiring nearby. So much for neorealist purism; but then again, this openly synthetic element provides a direct structural link to the uberneorealist La terra trema, another film where various social boundaries—between indoors and outdoors, private and public, family and community—are blurred and complicated in the course of everyday living.
The making of Rocco and His Brothers was a saga in itself. According to a Milestone extra featuring Caterina D’Amico, a knowledgeable scholar with personal ties to the production, Visconti started work on it after wrapping his 1957 drama White Nights, a relatively intimate adaptation of Dostoevsky’s exquisite 1848 novella. In about a month’s time, he and two other writers—one was D’Amico’s mother, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, whose prior credits ranged from Vittorio De Sica’s dramatic Bicycle Thieves (1948) to Mario Monicelli’s comedic Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958)—assembled a seventy-eight-page outline in which a large number of characters make their way through a dense and complicated string of events. Even at this stage the story involved a physically charismatic brother (Simone) who loses himself to the big city and a sensitive, altruistic brother (Rocco) who relinquishes his own well-being to help his self-destructive older sibling.
Joined by Lombardo, a producer hoping to move from ambitious B movies to prestigious auteur productions, Visconti then refined the plot, eliminated characters, brought forward the biblical and Dostoevsky connections, and developed Nadia into a representative of urban woe who is virtuous herself but unwittingly brings corruption and harm to the family. Further modifications came from screenwriters familiar with anthropological and architectural details of the southern region whence the family comes. The writers finished their work about a month before principal photography commenced, and during that brief time Visconti drastically tightened the script, cutting about twenty percent. The momentum of the long, multifaceted narrative surely benefited from the last-minute alterations.
Hard as it is to imagine now, Delon and Cardinale were very fresh talents in 1960, and therefore ideal for a picture that wanted (like most neorealist films) to steer away from famous faces. Delon’s sensational performance in René Clément’s Purple Noon had debuted just a few months earlier, and Cardinale was largely unknown despite her supporting work in Big Deal on Madonna Street. The cast acquired an international flavor from Delon and from Girardot, whom Visconti had recently directed in a Paris stage production, as well as from Paxinou, an illustrious Greek stage actress with several movies among her credits. Visconti’s boldest casting choice was to have Simone played by Salvatori, a specialist in lowbrow comic roles. He and Girardot became a couple during the shoot, and Caterina d’Amico credits this for the special persuasive power of their scenes. “On-screen it shows,” she opines.
Seen today in its complete form, Rocco and His Brothers is a deeply felt, richly observed, and dynamically acted achievement by a filmmaker whose lofty reputation is still thoroughly deserved. But it’s also a story that sinks into melodrama and overstatement in its later stages, diluting the psychological and cinematic energy that has accumulated over the previous couple of hours. That said, the first-rate digital transfer and generous crop of extras allow the Milestone edition to make a terrifically good case for the ongoing value of a remarkable film.
In addition to the filmed interviews with Caterina D’Amico and Mario Garbuglia quoted above, the extras include a conversation with Rotunno, who speaks of Visconti staying near him during almost every moment of the shoot, even when nothing more was happening than crew members laying cables for hours at a stretch. In another extra, costume designer Piero Tosi takes a tack opposite from Garbuglia’s, saying his work was completely based on neorealist values; in his painstaking research for the production, he bought the costumes for the early scenes in the family’s native Lucania, and took care to give all the film’s clothing “a certain distance [from] contemporary fashion” so the picture wouldn’t seem dated when fashions changed—the exception being the clothes worn by Nadia, who has a professional interest in seeming fashionable, and even her costumes are mostly “very sober” aside from an occasional striking detail. A final Milestone extra is a brief documentary about the film’s restoration, attesting to the skilled technicians and high-end technology that have restored this flawed but arresting film to full audiovisual strength.
David Sterritt is author of numerous books on film, most recently Simply Hitchcock and Roll ’n’ Roll Movies.
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Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 1