Monday Movie: Rocco and His Brothers, by Scott Nye
Rocco and His Brothers begins with a rural family moving into the big city, and never relents from this immediate disorientation. We’ve barely settled into our seats as nearly every important character – brothers Rocco, Simone, Ciro, Vincenzo, and Luca, their mother Rosaria, Vincenzo’s fiancée Ginetta, and her entire family – is quickly introduced amidst Vincezo and Ginetta’s engagement party. That the brothers (lead by Alain Delon as Rocco) are perhaps too well-cast and closely resemble one another means that it will take a good portion of the first hour of the film to begin to tell them apart. No matter; with three hours to go, co-writer/director Luchino Visconti gives you plenty of time to settle into his landmark, era-defining film.
Taking place over several years, it sees the family battle their way out of poverty and into some measure of comfort. An early scene watches the boys excitedly wake up to newly-fallen snow, which promises at least a little work shoveling the streets. By the end, the family has produced two successful boxers and a career man, accompanied by community respect. They have also experienced crime, heartbreak, the most extreme forms of violence and violation, and firm divisions in social ideology. When a prostitute, Nadia (Annie Girardot), enters their lives through pure happenstance, she’s practically out the window (literally) before she’s said much of anything. Who knew one woman could change so much? Small moments roll into permanent changes, as coincidences and ill-considered remarks permanently alter what were believed to be strong bonds.
Coming out the same year as the more modern-feeling La Dolce Vita and L’Avventura, Rocco can seem perhaps old-fashioned. Visconti prefers a more expressive performance style. The modern perspective may insist that restraint and control are the true sign of filmmaking strength. But what good is either if it obscures the depth of his feeling, the capacity of his expression? When Rocco explodes, flat-out screaming in agony over how deeply he’s been wounded, his devastation is a release for an audience who has suffered with him. You don’t spend three hours with somebody without getting to know them a little bit. Visconti’s cast is unafraid of how strange pure emotion can appear. We all know how strange it can be, from anytime we’ve felt totally contradictory impulses towards someone; we just don’t often see what that looks like. Visconti shows us.
Working with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, one of the most vital voices in the history of the profession, their camera never misses its place – the ruined poverty of the cityscape, the allure of a woman’s body, the thrill of a fight are all exquisitely captured in their black-and-white photography. So too is the endlessly-compelling landscape of the human face, isolated against its environment in extreme close-up and tight focus. When Visconti cuts to these close-ups, nothing else in the world seems to matter; he and Rotunno ensure nothing else can even be considered.
Again, this isn’t the cinema of dispassionate observation; this is immediate, engaged in how urgent our feeling is, no matter how misdirected it may become. This is the sort of film in which a couple runs to the top of a gorgeous old church to argue at the top of their lungs about the course of their relationship. They lash out at those they love most, they shack up with those they hate, they commit to jobs that will ruin them and their country and keep wondering how much better things would have been if they never left their small rural town that couldn’t hope to sustain them. Surely the past was always better, the alternate present more desirable, and the future uncertain. Probably nothing would be much better. But the hope helps alleviate the guilt and the hopelessness with which we’re now stuck, and for which we constantly try to atone.