Rocco and His Brothers: A Sequence Analysis, by Darrell Tuffs
The short sequence from the film discussed in this essay can be found online here.
The years between 1958-62 saw a huge shift in modern Italy’s economic and social structure. The country was expanding its industrial status and power at a rate previously unseen. Around this time, the country became less isolated from Europe, and more advanced as a technologically developed country. Before this, the country was still in vital stages of development, with agriculture being its largest sector of employment, particularly in the south. Italy’s north was gaining greatly from national and international industrial investment, including, famously, FIAT’s new production line based in Italy, as well as many other new investors wishing to take advantage of Italy’s general low costs of labour and need for work. This was the “Economic Miracle”, and it was about to change Italy forever, not just economically, but socially.
While the population of north Italy were experiencing benefits from this industrial serge, those in the south of the country were still somewhat disadvantaged. The south had gained little during the “miracle”, and so, many southerners decided to emigrate abroad or towards the north in search of work, and an improved quality of life for themselves and their families. It is in this subject of mass emigration that we come to Luchino Visconti’s 1960 film, Rocco and His Brothers, for the film is a dramatization of the social conflict and anxiety felt by many emigrating southerners at this time. This conflict is particularly emphasised during one scene towards the end of the film’s opening act, as the recently emigrated Parondi family struggle to settle into the new and modern environment of Milan that now surrounds them.
Rocco and His Brothers, when looked at structurally, is a masterful mix of the political and dramatic sides of Italy’s mass emigration period. During the film’s opening titles, we see trains full of southerners entering Milan at an astonishing rate, among them, the Parondi family. Rosaria Parondi and sons Rocco, Simone, Ciro, and Luca, enter Milan with high levels of pride and optimism; they are a traditional family from the south, about to face the chaotically modern challenges of the north. This very situation was all too common in Italy at this time. As Paul Ginsborg states in his book, A History of Contemporary Italy (1990), “Hundreds of thousands of Italians… left their places of birth… left the unchanging world of rural Italy, and began new lives in the booming cities and towns of the industrial world.” (Ginsborg, 1990, p. 218)
This social clash of traditional and modern values is visibly clear during my sequence of analysis. Within the scene, Rosaria and her sons prepare supper after a day of hard labour, when suddenly, the fifth brother Vincenzo, brings home Nadia, a northern girl needing warmth and shelter after a fight with her father. In this, we have already established a clear contrast in family values. As Nadia, with weak and troubling family connections, is faced with the tightly packed and loyal Parondi family, who hold traditional beliefs in family above all. Nadia instantly appears alienated within the scene. Her feminine patterned dress, wavy hair, and forcefully confident sexual manner radiate cultural modernity. This invites comparison with Rosaria, who proudly marches around in an apron and old cardigan, her hair tied back, her sleeves rolled up; she’s ready for hard work. The two women do share a dominating bond within the scene, for they are both strong, independent characters, only in contrasting ways, Nadia in a sexually seducing manner, and Rosaria with a more authoritative sense of leadership. So authoritative is Rosaria that an impression is made of her psychologically holding back and restricting her sons, as she controls the space around them. “The two main female characters … embody the dangers of past and present … (Rosaria) jealously guards her sons and leaves them little room to grow up and form relationships with the opposite sex.” (Bacon, 1998, p. 112) These psychological confinements evolve and surface with negative conclusions as the film progresses.
As for movement within the frame, this is used in a number of ways. For example, the men are more reserved throughout the scene, as Nadia enters, they are all sat down, lower within the frame, their heads drop and eyes raise; they are clearly intimidated by Nadia, but at the same time, fascinated by her energy. Ciro and Luca surround Nadia as she enters, Rocco and Simone look on further away at equal distances. Rocco wears a light coloured denim jacket, and Simone, a dark jumper. This staging gives strong impressions of conflict between Rocco and Simone, as Ciro and Luca are visually caught in the middle.
Nadia stands like an angel. She stands with a halo of light around her hair, while the men sit within pools of darkness. They are Nadia’s audience; who admire her urbanised persona, while still remaining somewhat cautious of it. Low, dim overhead lighting isolates certain points of light within the room, while others are left in almost complete darkness. This creates strong shadows around the room’s empty spaces, making the space appear more crowded and intimate.
The room is never established as a whole space, but rather, as small spaces of light within an overall darkness. Light is also used to pick out individual characters, as well as the personal space around them at different points of the scene. The scene’s space is presented as confined and closed. Each frame is either a medium shot packed with several characters, or a restricted close-up of a character’s face. We are not shown contrasting spaces with a range of traits and emotions, but rather, one communal atmosphere that merges the scene’s elements within it. Rosaria oversees these individual spaces of light, and Nadia visits them, but only Rocco and his brothers can control what happens within and without them.
The room’s walls are completely bare of stylistic choice, meaning that, their main character trait can be found in the fact that they are characterless. The walls feel cold and forgotten, their many cracks and marks reveal an old and tired property, just as the family’s longing for southern culture feels increasingly old and tired during the unfolding narrative of the film. The pots of food and clothes hanging from the walls allow the space to feel lived in, as the room, aesthetically, is traditionally southern and homely. This space has been created and shaped by the family in order to cling to their traditions of southern culture. This in turn increases Rosaria’s suspicion of Nadia, as she may have the power to break this culture, and Rosaria knows this. Towards the end of the scene, Nadia flees the room from a window, taking with her a coat belonging to the dead father of the family, and leaving behind her more seductive and modern dress. This exchange represents a social mark being made on both parties, for they have experienced the traditional and modern attributes of Italy within each other.
The world outside appears a great distance away, even from the viewpoint of the windows that allow us to view it. The family is placed behind the window’s dusty and foggy glass panes, reducing the ability to perceive anything outside clearly. The family is thereby trapped in a fabricated environment of a quickly disappearing world, refusing to let go of their past. Even their family portrait, which hangs on a far wall, reinforces this notion, for it looks over the family at all times, reminding them that they must never betray family values. As Geoffrey Nowell-Smith states in his book on Visconti, “Rosaria, Rocco and Simone are all victims of a conception of the family which has no relevance whatever to life in an industrial society.” (Nowell-Smith, 2003, p. 134)
As for Visconti’s camera within the scene, individual character close-ups are a striking feature, they help us to understand that these characters are, for the moment, as one, but do hold within them, very different personalities and points of interest. This idea is emphasised greatly later in the film, as the brothers move away from family life, and begin to choose their own individual paths based on their ability to accept modern culture, or not.
The camera never tracks within the scene, but does on some occasions pan with characters as they move. This simulates a motion created by the human eye, particularly in the case of Nadia, as the eyes of the men linger on her body as she travels around the room.
Because of Visconti’s background in theatre, many of the scene’s shots are carefully staged and prepared. The majority of them are medium shots of characters from the waist up, as they interact with their environments, and with their surrounding space. We are given a strong sense that, primarily, each shot is built from several elements within the surrounding scene, and then combined in the medium shot as a wider comment of the characters within it. “A crucial feature of Visconti’s anthropomorphic cinema was his charting of the dialectical relationship between an individual and his or her environment.” (Bacon, 1998, p. 116) This results in a dramatic and constant feeling of social conflict within environments becoming projected throughout the scene.
Clearly, the scene’s overall tones of confinement, loyally, tradition, and progress, are of extreme importance when related to Rocco and His Brothers as a comment of Italian social change. At the heart of the film, is a family, scared of change, but willing to try for the sake of their future. Their past haunts them at every turn, with the fear of portray constantly in the balance. However, it is in this scene that we begin to see a turning point within the brothers, a fascination with the modern values of Nadia, and a separation with the traditional values of the south.
Bacon, H. (1998) Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ginsborg, P. (1990) A History of Contemporary Italy: 1943-80, London: Penguin Books.
Nowell-Smith, G. (2003) Luchino Visconti, London: British Film Institute.