Directed by the unique figure of Luchino Visconti – heir to one of Milan’s richest families, a communist, and gay – Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and his Brothers) was one of three huge Italian films released in 1960 along with Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura and Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita. Visconti’s work was always “excessive” in tone and scope, but with Rocco we seemingly get it all. The film reframes the socio-political texture of his seminal neo-realist work charting the plight of Italy’s regional poor, as seen in Ossessione (1942) and La terra trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948), but via even grander formal and thematic dimensions closer to those of the filmmaker’s subsequent ornate Risorgimento period epic, Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963).

There are important initial connections between Rocco and La terra trema, Visconti’s atmospheric masterpiece about the attempts of a family of fishermen on a small island off the coast of Sicily to overthrow the economic tyranny of wholesalers. But while both films chart a southern family’s traumatic efforts to transcend miserable material conditions, in Rocco they have “escaped” the South, per se; their new, in many ways more complex and archetypally modern plight, begins upon arriving in Milan to seek a better future. The two films are also marked by historical as well as geographical distance. Whereas revolution was in the air in 1948 (an angry young man encourages class rebellion, and we glimpse communist graffiti), by 1960 the radical forces of change are exemplified by the northern metropolis defined by industrial capital rather than the ideas of Marx or Gramsci. Here the Southern family isn’t seeking to enact historical change, but rather private success within its already prescribed tide. This altered political horizon resonated with the nation itself: while in 1948 the Communist Party was a serious contender for winning Italy’s first democratic elections (in the context of which it even primarily funded La terra trema), 12 years later long-term Christian Democrat rule had been established. Yet while Rocco’s characters and the social real they encounter may display a distinct lack of political “consciousness”, Visconti’s film – in addition to, and through, its aesthetic and dramatic strengths – enables a rigorous analysis of huge socio-historical change.

Rocco was greeted by predominantly leftist Italian critics as a welcome “return” to realism and socio-political concerns after the theatrical artifice of the director’s Senso (1954) and Le notti bianche (White Nights, 1957). Yet irrespective of its ostensible subject matter, the film is, if anything, even more operatic, decorative and psychological. This expansion and deepening is partly thanks to a newly enlarged and elaborate “canvas”, a long running time, and a newly episodic structure whereby the narrative is literally divided up into sections named after each brother. This novelistic form, uniquely marshalled by Visconti here, I think, draws attention to the film’s multiple literary touchstones and influences – in particular Giovanni Testori’s novel Il ponte della ghisolfa (The Bridge of Ghisolfa, which Rocco loosely adapts), the Sicilian author Giovanni Verga, and Thomas Mann. Italian critic Guido Aristaco describes Rocco as showing most clearly Mann’s lifelong influence on Visconti, and the successful cinematic equivalent of the German author’s “critical realism” (1).

Visconti credits Verga with first introducing him to the “Southern problem”, then political theorist and Italian Communist Party leader Antonio Gramsci (prior to dying in Mussolini’s prison clinic) with a proper analysis of why Italy remained so socio-economically divided. Rocco was apparently the first major film to portray South-North immigration. But that we never see the South in the film is crucial (2). This geographical and psychological demarcation is clear in the early scenes detailing the Parondi family’s struggle to adapt to a new reality. The grand aesthetic and thematic address through which their saga will be played-out is introduced with the film’s sublime opening shots showing the family arriving at Milan’s central station. This truly imposing space, rendered in the film’s characteristically velvety high-contrast black-and-white textures, looms like another planet full of promise and foreboding.

Denying us images of the South, Rocco is also thereby able to paint a complex, critical portrait of Italy’s post-war modernity inextricably linked with il boom – the nation’s “economic miracle”, almost entirely located in the North. While the early scenes clearly show the problems faced by new “immigrants” from what might as well be another time as well as an alien space, we likely seek in vain any rural Italy gleaned through the Parondis’ clear lack of sophistication and the mother Rosaria’s (Katina Paxinou) exaggerated southern mannerisms suggesting constant crisis. And though the audience is encouraged to think that we can get “inside” each of the brothers as designated by their distinct “episodes” in the film, the fact that these figures and their cultural heritage remain very broadly sketched means that the psychological dimension is notably abstract and “distanced” while also enabling the film’s insights in addition to escalating dramatic tension. These people are essentially tropes through which Visconti develops a general, layered picture of the moral impact felt by such figures or symptoms of history as they enact the most classical of modern stories in coming to the city. In this way, the film both gives full expression to the traumatic psychological force of events on screen and allows us “room” to consider the resolutely social causes at play.

We also need the drama of this family, Visconti argues, so we can sense and feel the literally embodied symptoms, trauma and overall affect of social transformation:

The key to the understanding of the spiritual and psychological conflict is always social, even if the conclusions I reach are always those which concern the individuals whose cases I am describing. The yeast, the blood in the veins, of history, is always thick with civic passion and social reasoning. (3)

The result on screen is nothing short of operatic tragedy. But rather than an arbitrary or merely characteristic tonal or performative choice, Visconti argues that the film must be this way from the very outset (4). Chasing the northern dream is inherently tragic for the southerner as it is played-out within current socio-economic and political reality. This is why he insists the film is less a melodrama than “a realistic tragedy” (5). The film’s editor, Mario Serandrei, perhaps most accurately describes the ultimate expressive force and critical dimension through which Visconti renders the “yeast” of history: “The story is dispassionate and yet explodes with the force of a hurricane.” (6)

The film’s paradoxical ingredients of “hurricane” and analysis enable us to both feel and understand the conundrum faced by the Parondis and what they represent: staying in the South would lead to continued material hardship, while moving to the metropolis offers them slim chance of improvement but guarantees cultural confusion and moral vertigo. In myriad ways, the film starkly shows how real success in the modern city – only achieved here by the secondary, “boring” brothers Vincenzo (Spiros Focás) and Ciro (Max Cartier) – is completely at odds with traditional heroism both in the real world and in the movies. While two brothers transform quietly into “modern men”, Rocco (Alain Delon) and Simone (Renato Salvatori), in sharp contrast, play out differently doomed would-be patriarchal roles that are enlarged and degraded. Rural archetypes of familial self-sufficiency either violently self-destruct within the space of modernity or are quietly superseded by new bourgeois prototypes born of the city and seemingly characterised by blandness, anonymity, and mass-industrial wage slavery.

Looked at today, Rocco’s essaying of heroic tropes is particularly trenchant as a dark, devastating critique of masculinity. As the three hours tick by, the drama increasingly concerns the morally opposed yet co-reliant Simone and Rocco. The film thrusts upon Simone all the “superficial” and ethically debased effects of city life as taken on by a country boy weaving an endless web of economic and personal deception as he seeks to achieve success utilising the more regressive aspects of the new world. But the much more disturbing downward spiral and moral abomination is, I think, Rocco’s.

Initially in the background (Delon was then a relatively unknown actor and his passivity is remarkable as he almost blends in with the furniture in early scenes), Rocco gradually emerges as an allegedly “saintly” or Christ-like figure who seeks to take on all the suffering of his family – notably Simone’s – as his own (7). But his mythic ahistorical goodness is shockingly blown apart when Rocco’s girlfriend Nadia (Annie Girardot) is raped in front of him by the crazed Simone who is possessed by a jealous rage (she much earlier ended their superficial affair) and who wants to show Rocco “what kind of woman she is” – fallen, a prostitute. By this point, we have likely given up on Simone, and it is the thus-far elevated Rocco who now supplies the film with an even more devastating moral nadir when he ignores Nadia’s plea for affection and reassurance straight after her traumatic assault. Far from humanist, saintly Rocco’s real concern (defined, perhaps, by his religious aura) is elsewhere. For him the meaningful suffering and tragedy is, appallingly, not Nadia’s but the spiritual crisis of her perpetrator.

Here and in the subsequent scene set atop Milan’s cathedral, in which Rocco declares Nadia must “go back to Simone” because he failed to see how his brother “needs” her (the woman’s own desires, suffering and very interesting moral dimensions are it seems irrelevant to the grandiose metaphysical saga of male subjectivity), we see the true face of this Christ-like figure. His ideologically tunnel-visioned forgiveness and sensitivity to suffering are defined by the most conservative, and narrowly defined, criteria: gender and family. Irrespective of Visconti or his co-screenwriters’ intentions, Rocco’s treatment of Nadia as motivated by a morally neurotic and profoundly unethical obsession with family at the violent expense of everyone else, is one of the cruellest and most revolting acts I have seen committed by a film’s notional hero (8).

For a long time Rocco had a reputation as a key film of the early 1960s, when Italian and European competition for that honour was certainly hot. It was also seen in retrospect at least, as a hallmark of successful (here Italian-French) co-production, equal parts art-house and epic star-studded blockbuster (this is Delon’s first big success and Claudia Cardinale has an early appearance in a minor role as Vincenzo’s Milanese wife), which Visconti would go on to repeat in the now more famous The Leopard. The film’s initial fame was also partly caused by its scandalous content, causing serious problems with censors (the original cut was not broadly seen until restored 40 years later by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno). Rocco is still shocking, if perhaps less for the reasons that appalled conservative politicians at the time (Nadia’s knickers flying onto Rocco’s head in the rape scene, and a strongly suggested gay sub-plot involving Simone and a richer man), and rather more for its particular deconstructions of masculinity played-out within the context of larger historical forces.

The true scope and critical power of Rocco and his Brothers as a layered mediation on post-war Italy is perhaps most clearly tasted in its peaceful last scene. The film’s feverish drama has centred on two brothers’ horribly intertwined moral degradation. Here we finally learn that Simone has been arrested (thanks, we assume, to Ciro’s tip-off) after murdering Nadia; meanwhile Rocco was last seen looking completely broken by his failure to “save” Simone and restore the family to its original form (and even “source”, when he says in a patriarchal speech that his greatest wish is to return the Parondis to their farm). In the film’s final minutes, we are then left with the two youngest brothers – images of apparently benign, well-adjusted and un-neurotic masculinity. Yet as we watch Ciro return after lunch to his job working for Alpha Romeo at a huge car-manufacturing complex (the iconic industry of il boom), we might also note that while escaping both the South and his older brothers’ apocalyptic Greek tragedy, thanks in part to learning a trade, he has also paid a bland, dehumanising and newly enslaved price for adapting to the still inequitable modern world – where real choice and freedom remain barely a dream.

Endnotes

  1. Guido Aristaco, “The Earth Still Trembles”, Films and Filming January 1961, reprinted in Rocco and his Brothers, Masters of Cinema, DVD booklet, Eureka Entertainment, 2008, p. 10.
  2. The film was originally going to have a prologue sequence called “Mother” set on the Parondis’ farm before the journey to Milan.
  3. Luchino Visconti, “The Miracle that gave Man Crumbs”, Films and Filming January 1961, reprinted in Rocco and his Brothers, Masters of Cinema, p. 16.
  4. Luchino Visconti, “Questions for the Author”, Cinéma 61 April 1961, reprinted in Rocco and his Brothers, Masters of Cinema, p. 23. It is nonetheless worth noting that Visconti consistently worked in both opera (establishing a famous partnership with Maria Callas) and theatre.
  5. Luchino Visconti, “Questions for the Author”, pp. 28-9.
  6. Les Coulisses du tournage, documentary included in Rocco and his Brothers, Masters of Cinema, 2008.
  7. He is compared by Visconti to Prince Myshkin from Dostoyevski’s The Idiot, as “a representative of illustrious goodness as an end in itself”. See “Questions for the Author”, p. 30.
  8. Interestingly, in an earlier version of the script, it is Rocco rather than Simone who murders Nadia.

Rocco e i suoi fratelli/Rocco and his Brothers (1960 Italy/France 177 mins)

Prod Co: Titanus/Les Films Marceau Prod: Goffredo Lombardo Dir: Luchino Visconti Scr: Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosca, Enrico Medioli, Luchina Visconti, loosely adapted from Giovanni Testori’s novel Il ponte della ghisolfa Phot: Giuseppe Rotunno Ed: Mario Serandrei Prod Des: Mario Garbuglia Mus: Nino Rota

Cast: Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, Katina Paxinou, Alessandra Panaro, Spiros Focás, Max Cartier, Corrado Pani, Claudia Cardinale

About The Author

Hamish Ford is a lecturer in Film, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Newcastle, and a regular contributor to Senses of Cinema.