Classic of the Week: Rocco & His Brothers

After seeing some films from contemporary Italian directors last week, it’s worth a look at a classic. Visconti’s gorgeous, tragic meld of operatic melodrama and neo-realism Rocco and His Brothers was restored 2 years ago at L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna.

Four brothers and their mother arrive unexpectedly from the South with all their worldly goods, to stay with the eldest son, Vincenzo, who has made a life for himself in Milan. Their arrival, full of innocent optimism, coincides with Vincenzo’s visit-to-impress at his new prospective in-laws’, a delightful Visconti ‘signature dish’ of a warm, lively family gathering, in this case starting out polite and pleasurable but soon brought down to earth by discord. With a beautiful symmetry, towards the end of the film a similar scene teeming with life and pleasure is brought crashing down by the intrusion of reality. Three years later the aristocratic side of Visconti was to employ this wonderful choreographing again in the fading aristocratic world of The Leopard, but here the communist in Visconti brings us every detail of lower class life with equal verve.

It’s packed with truly great, charismatic performances. In its five sections the film looks at each brother in turn. Vincenzo is soon packed away into stable married life; Simone (Renato Salvatore), strong and dependable, is destroyed and brutalised by obsessive love, a real, visible, physical collapse; Rocco, played by a young and unbearably pure-looking Alain Delon, is thoughtful and always does the ‘right’ thing regardless of his own desires, a goodness which in fact brings disaster when his involvement with Nadia, a prostitute whom Simone loves, becomes the catalyst for the family’s tragedy. Nadia is played by a luminous Annie Girardot, a marvellous bittersweet, nouveau-vaguesque performance. Ciro, the fourth son, quiet and undemonstrative, keeps to the straight and narrow and eventually becomes a factory worker and makes a good marriage, while little Luca, only a small boy when the family arrives in Milan, is mostly an observer. There’s a glimpse of a young pre-fame Claudia Cardinale as Vincenzo’s mild-mannered wife, the epitome of quiet decency and a world away from the sensual roles she later became known for. And although Katrina Paxinou’s overblown style as the mother Rosaria irritates at first, magically, the film seamlessly unites gritty neo-realism of the life of the despised southern immigrant with the high melodrama of family strife and desperate, corroding love.

There are scenes almost too grim to watch. Ironically parts of the film were condemned by the Church at the time and the makers were forced to literally ‘darken’ some scenes to make them less graphic, including a rape scene which is in fact made even more disturbingly brutal by its brooding darkness. But it’s the last scene which is most powerful, putting it up there with the end of The Third Man as one of the most memorable closing scenes ever. Luca, now a teenager, visits his sober brother Ciro at work. Ciro is almost indistinguishable from his workmates in his overall uniform, midgets outside the huge car factory. As Luca leaves he declares he will not stay in the north but will, sometime, return to their old, retrospectively idyllic, pastoral life in the south. As he skips away past the featureless urban landscape that is the new Italy you feel no comfort for him. Such innocence, along with his childhood has gone, the world has changed.

This is a great film, but perhaps there’s also the pleasure too, for some of us watching, of how things used to be in the old fleapits, the crashing, inappropriate music, the innocence of the full-on emotion, the slightly damaged celluloid images, well-worn with so much watching, and it’s a kind of shock to go out into the sleek, plastic world of West End commercial cinema in 2015, like Luca into the brave, dull new world. But you go out like someone holding a very full glass of something precious that you don’t want to spill, even though you know you will.

Seen London Film Festival, Vue Leicester Square, October 2015


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