Movie Brat Godfathers: Luchino Visconti’s Rocco And His Brothers (1960) – Blu-ray review
Visconti infects neo-realism with a preposterous, operatic sweep – but it’s the Italian classic where you can feel Hollywood watching.
Rocco And His Brothers
(Luchino Visconti, 1960)
Something was clearly in the air in Italy in 1960. After a decade or more following the rhythms of neo-realism, three of the country’s leading auteurs looked at their rapidly changing society and changed style accordingly. For Fellini, it was a chance to produce the baroque satire of La Dolce Vita; for Antonioni, the way forward was the cryptic dread of L’Avventura. And then there was Luchino Visconti, and Rocco And His Brothers.
This is the least radical of this unofficial state-of-the-nation trilogy but the most heartfelt. The neo-realist roots remain (the screenplay was co-written by Bicycle Thieves scribe Suso Cecchi d’Amico) but Visconti supersizes the genre into a sustained blast of operatic power, its themes of rural poverty and urban ennui portrayed through the heightened melodrama of one family.
Today, it clearly has one foot in Italian cinema’s past, with the panoramic view of Milan’s housing estates and industrial spaces giving it a documentary sheen. Set against that is the choreographed bustle of the acting, punch-drunk on movement even before the plot takes us into the boxing ring. The family unit itself consists of five brothers and their matriarch, but at every available opportunity Visconti crowds the frame with relatives, lovers, friends and enemies.
The rough-and-tumble realism of fraternal bonhomie is seeded with symbolism, the plot bringing to the boil all of Visconti’s notions of shame, sacrifice and masculinity run amok. Throughout, this is linked both to the family’s migration from the rural South and the promiscuous North, a growing cultural divide between simple tradition and fraught modernity. While the title reminds that this isn’t just Rocco’s story – and certainly all of the brothers play a part – there are questionable gender politics in the way that Nadia (a character who goes through hell) exists only to define the men’s stories. The biggest miracle is that Annie Girandot, so good as Nadia, got married in real life to her on-screen persecutor, Renato Salvatori.
Even so, the study of family and troubled masculinity is so potent, the sweep of Visconti’s vision so bravura, that this had as lasting an effect on cinema as Fellini or Antonioni. That’s largely because a generation of Italian-Americans recognised their own lives reflected in Rocco, and saw a way of expressing it themselves. It is practically a roadmap for the Movie Brats, with Alain Delon’s Rocco (the good brother sucked into darkness after military service) foreshadowing Pacino’s Michael Corleone and Salvatori’s tortured boxer Simone an obvious role model for De Niro in Raging Bull.