Rocco and His Brothers (1960): An Epic Family Drama

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One immediate takeaway from Luchino Visconti’s Italian epic Rocco and His Brothers is its gorgeous, swoon-worthy black & white that’s absolutely magnificent. It shares hallowed ground with films such as The Grapes of Wrath or The Godfather where the palette does yeoman’s work when it comes to informing the drama.

At its most essential level, the movie is about a poor rural family from the South journeying to Milan to make a new life for themselves. Their patriarch is dead and now his wife (Katina Paxinou) heads up north with her four boys to reconnect with the oldest brother.

Vincenzo (Spiros Focás) is courting a dark-haired beauty (Claudia Cardinale) with thoughts of marriage once he gets steady work. Their home feels gay and bright with the roving camera capturing the full expanse of their household. It’s positively overflowing with family, and we expect nothing less.

I think some contemporary critics were disappointed by its sheen which is very un-neorealist. But it does boast its own brand of truth about family and life and love and all the constellations of emotions that we grapple with every day whilst living with other people. In this way, it shares a brand of authenticity with those earlier generations of films.

Francis Ford Coppola was certainly influenced by the picture, not only based on his hiring of composer Nina Rota but also in a more general sense in courting themes about family. It makes for a compelling ensemble telling their stories in a manner that feels totally immersive and honest to who they are as human beings. And yet it’s destined for heightened tragedy akin to Rebel Without a Cause or West Side Story.

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What a raucous opening it is; it’s spectacular with the families pitted against one another and by families, I mean the mothers butting heads, while their children are left to pick up the pieces and play peacemakers. It feels all too real. Vincenzo quickly finds himself with an angry mother and a whole pack of brothers he has to find lodging for, no wife, and still no job. Everything goes to hell in a matter of moments.

Despite its sheer expanse, Rocco and his Brothers feels simultaneously well-organized and still free to follow the whims of life. Each brother gets a chapter of sorts and yet each one bleeds into the next. They’re never obvious sections and so it feels more like poetry woven throughout a story than hard and fast rules that must be adhered to.

For the time, Vincenzo lands them a temporary place to live, somewhere they can stay on until they get evicted. It’s not a promising life, but the family does receive a couple propitious bits of luck. Newly fallen snow means work shoveling snow, and the boys wake up early, downing their mom’s piping hot coffee, as they scramble out into the early dawn to bring home some bacon as it were.

Because it becomes a story of each brother exercising their worth. They are valued by the manner in which they are able to provide bread money to the family unit. Rocco (Alain Delon) bumbles his way around a dry cleaner weathering all the young ladies teasing with a good-natured stoicism. Ciro goes the sensible route, conducting his schooling so he can land a suitable job at the local Alfa Romeo factory.

Simone (Renato Salvatori) fancies the idea of joining the local boxing gym as a chance at some easy dough, and he gets the biggest break out of all of them. A trainer takes a chance on him, and he wins his first fight, despite a belligerent temper.

If these scenes are only preliminary, they provide the framework to understand our characters going forward. Simone presumedly lacks the moral prerequisites for a lengthy boxing career: a rejection of drinking, smoking, and women. Rocco is called upon to be his sparring partner and his guardian.

After his glorious showing for the home crowd, the brothers proceed to get embroiled in a street fight only to wander off with the pretty streetwalker Nadia (Annie Girardot). Simone’s behavior doesn’t bode well. Life roles onward and with few prospects, Rocco pursues his military service. It’s far from a digression. Instead, it reflects the passage of time

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Rocco is one of those enigmatic figures who watches the world and seems to see everything. Those who think he’s quiet or unfriendly, over time, come to realize he’s perceptive, carrying deep reservoirs to make the most of life and have faith in everything around him. There’s a dashing nobility to him. This becomes even more true when he returns home.

The first person he meets at a sidewalk cafe is a face from his past: Nadia. He, smartly dressed in his uniform. Conservative. She, in her sunglasses looking him over. She’s no longer with Simone — at least they drifted apart — because she was serving a prison term. In Rocco, she finds someone understanding and kind who never demeans her. She feels understood in his company. Pretty soon a subtle romance blooms between them, warm and tender.

What we haven’t taken into account is Simone. The time has changed him as well. Now he’s hardened, disgruntled, and disillusioned with his boxing career. He dedicated himself to smokes, drinks, and pool with the boys. But he’s also intent on ripping Rocco and Nadia apart. Jealousy takes hold, and it’s the stuff of melodrama. To detail it all now would be rote and a disservice.

You need to see it as he brings them down to his level with a wounded tenacity nearly as electric as anything Dean or Brando managed in East of Eden or Streetcar. Suddenly, everything that was so blissfully and right between the two lovers is besmirched. And they cannot get it back. The way the camera clings to them violently as Simone tries to advance on Nadjia feels convulsive. It’s the film’s cataclysmic event.

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In its wake, Rocco ascends in his own boxing career channeling his hatred into his rounds in the ring and shedding tears for how the harshness of the world has changed him. 

As Vincenzo settles into his own familial life, it is Ciro’s turn to respond to the fracture between his other brothers. He confronts both on his mother’s behalf, entreating Rocco, “A seed gone bad must be weeded out. After all, trees are meant to bear fruit.” However, the well-meaning boy doesn’t quite know how to apply this teaching into practice.

Rocco continues on the rise in his singular objective. Simone’s sunk into the gutter as not only a malcontent but the laughing stock of the community — his debts piling up and Nadia staying with him, partially out of malice and a promise to Rocco. It is here where the film’s editing comes front and center as the two brothers go their separate ways.

My mind is drawn to a curious interchange between mother and son as they dialogue on the self-destructive nature of the black sheep of the family:

“It’s not for us to judge him but to save him.” – Rocco

“Christ will regret the suffering he visited upon us.” – Mother

“We’re no longer under God’s grace. We’re our own enemies.”

Rocco proves himself again to be this near-otherworldly figure. He has an almost unfathomable amount of grace for others, and yet he’s prepared for penance and to take the burden and sorrow on his back. He is Christ-like and yet unable to be their savior.

It makes for a dismal denouement drained of all hope. Still, the family must pick themselves up out of the muck and the mire and make a way in life — each brother on his own path. Rocco finds his face plastered all over the news kiosks for his latest exploits. Simone has fallen into disarray. Ciro represents a certain hopefulness — what his brothers used to be, and Vincenzo is what they could have been — both settling down with families. Little Luca’s fate is yet to be decided. He’s indicative of the fight still left to be forged.

But I am left to return to my opening metaphor. Whether it’s Tom Joad or Michael Corleone, and in this case, Rocco, these are young men who made irrevocable choices in their lives from which there is no turning back.

The chasm between who they were and who they become couldn’t be more disparate and in all accounts, it has heady implications on their family unit. What they do, they do for their loved ones, and they still see everything they love crumble around them. It’s not a new concept — it’s not novel — but there’s something distinctly profound in this. Because we all experience something of the same.

My final thought is only this. It occurs to me that the Parondi brothers might all represent the seeds in the parable, falling all along the road. I’ll leave it up to you which ones will make their way through the straight and narrow and which ones will bear fruit. Because human beings are often resilient, and they are often granted second chances in life if they accept them. Perhaps they can remain under God’s grace after all or maybe it’s not for us to know.

4.5/5 Stars

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