“But you mustn’t always forgive”
More than a story about immigrants building a new life for themselves away from the home they wished could have been theirs forever, Luchino Visconti‘s Rocco e i suoi fratelli [Rocco and His Brothers] is an epic journey of hubris, love, and grand dreams falling short. In three hours we receive around four or five years of advancement and corruption within the Parondi family as opportunities are achieved as easily as they are squandered. We’re talking about five brothers who grew up in southern Italy’s farmland with a father who refused to leave the only world he had ever known. These are five young men willing to do the work necessary to survive in the north yet also wholly unprepared for the possibilities a city like Milan provides.
Split into five chapters, we see the intermingling lives of Vincenzo (Spiros Focás), Simone (Renato Salvatori), Rocco (Alain Delon), Ciro (Max Cartier), and little Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi) with moderate focus shown to each during his own chapter despite the main thrust concerning Rocco and Simone throughout. An expository prologue arrives that’s much slower than these portions, the excitement of the four youngest boys and mother Rosaria (Katina Paxinou) coming to Milan to meet Vincenzo (and Claudia Cardinale as his fiancé Ginetta) is palpable if not entirely concise. Watching them in awe at the city and ready to conquer a mild snowstorm is great; five minutes of dressing is less so let alone the repetition of their camaraderie. This is, however, the last time they’re innocently happy and together.
So while it’s somewhat tiring to get to the meat of their tale, I can’t say any one piece could be excised without losing impact for events to come. Whether the hilarious hijinks of a still in mourning Rosaria crashing Vincenzo’s engagement party (much to Ginetta’s entire family’s chagrin), the obvious class/race distinction between “civilized” northerners and “worthless leeches” of the south, or a fateful run-in with neighborhood prostitute Nadia (Annie Girardot), we learn by reading between lines and enjoying the chaos. Lofty ambitions like becoming boxing champions inevitably manifest (a life Vincenzo left behind while Simone strives towards it with Rocco possessed by the skills to excel whether he desires to or not), the hope to ultimately rise from poverty and government housing on everyone’s mind.
Credited to five screenwriters and inspired by Giovanni Testori‘s novel Il ponte della Ghisolfa, Rocco and His Brothers has itself become the inspiration for countless auteurs and their work. Whether Francis Ford Coppola and The Godfather or Martin Scorsese and Raging Bull, this idea of heavy drama with unwavering love despite treasonous familial actions has permeated into cinema’s lexicon. The film was highly censored upon its release both in Italy and America, Visconti’s bold strokes depicting violence, sexuality, and more by ignoring the sense of taboo marking many of the incidents portrayed. There’s no mistaking the subtext of Roger Hanin‘s Morini seeking out young boxers to manage and there’s no denying Nadia’s complexity—why she engages in prostitution and the circumstances that could allow her to escape it.
Visconti cuts out all excess once the momentum gets moving. For example: he lets the camera linger on a brooch as Simone seduces Rocco’s boss before cutting to the Parondi’s one-room abode with the latter visibly worried and speaking about a misplaced object. It’s an effortless transition that allows us to interpret silent faces of worry before the doorbell rings to signal Nadia in the street with said brooch. We receive so much visual and emotional information without the full picture, this knowledge expertly enhancing each revelation above mere craftwork on behalf of the writers. In less than ten minutes four characters carry out an elaborate ordeal without ever feeling contrived. The situation breathes and unfolds with an authenticity that the film never once relinquishes for cheap melodrama.
There are numerous moments like this where actors are given the room to come alive in anger, hate, forgiveness, and love. This is why we can know each Parondi brother as more than a cog in the machine. We watch Vincenzo embrace the role of patriarch to be responsible, make sacrifices, and raise a family. We’re there when Simone’s Icarus flies into the sun, becoming complacent, entitled, and extremely unpredictable along the way. We relate to Rocco’s quiet surveyor keenly aware of everything happening, his duty to his tribe and its history a heavy burden leading him to forsake personal happiness for the group. And Ciro, young enough to yet educate himself beyond his place in society, cultivates a pragmatically utilitarian outlook to prove modern opposite traditionalist siblings.
I didn’t forget about Luca, but his being so young does push him into an area of outsider. He mostly serves as a messenger running between the older Parondis or a pawn to be used by his brothers in dire straits. Here’s a boy who sees the myriad paths life can take you: fulfillment, fame, destitution, and hard working pride. Does one’s hero become the person who lives for others with little conflict or the flashy celebrity everyone knows who precariously balances on a tightrope of extremes? Luca may not be as cognizant to everything as we are, but he’s experiencing compromise constantly being both made and rejected. He’s able to fear and dream through examples set by men who would be hard-pressed to ever admit pure joy.
They’ve all turned their backs on something as though they didn’t have a choice. This could be their past, their desires, or their possibilities. Each is selfish even when he believes he’s being the opposite: Simone for wanting what he cannot have and the jealousy formed by seeing another find it; Rocco for believing he can fix everything without realizing his actions exacerbate their destruction; Nadia’s understandable quest for vengeance providing a sense of retribution at the expense of her own wellbeing; and Ciro’s attempt to be a peacekeeping bridge between old world and new by always do the right thing while exposing the right thing to sometimes be wrong. These are complicated souls led down a path of dreams that shatters in ways you cannot expect.
The journey is therefore a tough one despite the beautiful visuals and stunning performances (when looking beyond Visconti overdubbing everyone to make dialogue completely out of synch). Every time a tragic event occurs, you think it will be the wake-up call they need to escape this cycle of self-destruction. Instead things only get worse. And in their unraveling we see a changing world of dangerous suppositions where relationships are concerned and the interference of chauvinism, disrespect, and misguided egotism risk reputation as well as life itself. Visconti’s entire piece is discovered to be a boxing match where no one is left unscathed. He juxtaposes the ring with romance and the lack thereof—machismo rendering men impotent while love rips more hearts out than it can protect via tender devotion.