Wednesday, August 3, 2011


After the neorealist movement won a foothold in America by providing reliably scandalous product for the nation's growing numbers of arthouses, the Italian film industry started firing the big guns. The movies, once noted for an ascetic modesty in their attention to ordinary folk, grew epic in length, and sometimes in scope, as acclaim fueled directors' ambition. Along with Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti was one of the biggest guns, matching Fellini's three-hour blockbuster La Dolce Vita with his own 176-minute monster while joining forces with his peer for the colossal portmanteau piece Boccaccio '70. Unlike Fellini, Visconti appeared with Rocco e i suoi fratelli to remain true to neorealism's ideal focus on common people, though he'd follow Rocco with a still-more stupendous historical epic about an aristocrat, The Leopard. However, Visconti had preceded Rocco with a modernization of Dostoevsky, White Nights, and Rocco itself retains a lot of the "loose, baggy monster" quality of 19th century Russian novels. In fact, Rocco and His Brothers reminds me most of another master's questionable attempt to modernize and relocate Dostoevsky, Akira Kurosawa's The Idiot. Besides length, both films share an arguably Dostoevskian obsession with the depths of human abjection and self-destructive passion.

There goes the neighborhood; the Parondis in Milan. A neighbor's one-word description? "Africa!"

Long film, simple story: Rocco Parondi (Alain Delon in one of his breakthrough roles) and his three brothers, along with their mother (Oscar-winner Katina Paxinou) quit their southern hardscrabble farm to move to Milan, where eldest son Vincenzo already has a job and a fiancee. They immediately create a scene at Vincenzo's engagement party when the matriarch expects to move in with her full brood. Instead, they get thrown out into the street, and Vincenzo has to scramble to get them temporary housing. Starting with odd jobs like shoveling snow to earn their way, each brother ventures forth to seek his fortune. Rocco takes a variety of jobs and serves a stint in the army before following brother Simone (Renato Salvatori) into a boxing career. While Simone proved a gutless tomato can as a fighter, Rocco rises to contention.

Alain Delon and Annie Girardot in good times and bad.

Rocco also outdoes Simone as a suitor for Nadia (Annie Girardot), a prostitute who works the projects, but Simone isn't going to take that humiliation lying down. He and his lowlife droogs beat Rocco up while Simone rapes Nadia in front of him. While Mama Parondi bemoans how the wicked woman is ruining her boys, Rocco effectively surrenders Nadia to Simone out of some misplaced sense of family responsibility. This solves nothing. Simone seeks deeper and deeper into gambling debt while a contemptuous Nadia flounces around the house making life miserable for Mama. Things get so bad that the other brothers are willing to raise funds for Simone to get him out of town, but the offer only goads the lousy layabout to ask for more money. He also gets dangerously antsy about his future with Nadia. The film builds to a double climax, cutting from Rocco's big fight to Simone's shocking showdown with his girl, before resolving itself into one more family conflict as responsible Alfa Romeo worker Ciro (Max Cartier) tries to make sure Simone gets what he deserves while his mother and brothers still desperately try to protect their kin....

Who's crucifying who?

Rocco's length is debatably justified by Visconti's novelistic ambition, but I couldn't help thinking that Warner Bros. could have told the same story just as well in half the time. It seems to be regarded as socially conscious in some essential way, as if "the city" or "modernity" is to blame for the Parondis' plight, but I'm not sure that Visconti himself actually felt that way about it. I detect no more innate social consciousness, much less any political consciousness, than I would in some American counterpart film like A Streetcar Named Desire or God's Little Acre -- I thought it safe to cover a lot of territory. As with many a "white trash" saga, the portrayal of human wretchedness and depravity seems to be an end unto itself. The climax of the Simone-Nadia storyline certainly seems designed to set a new standard for violence in an otherwise-respectable production, and that scene helped sell Rocco as a scandalous yet pretentious shocker when it invaded the U.S. in the summer of 1962.

All this being said, Rocco is a pictorially solid and generally well-acted film that satisfies my virtual-tourist urge with its trip through the landscape of 1960 Milan. While the title identifies the film as an early showcase for Delon, Renato Salvatori actually makes the strongest acting impression. The script obliges him to go over the top, especially when he bawls at the end like a big guilty baby, but he is absolutely convincing as the bum of the brothers. Given how much Rocco has to react to Simone's troubles, Salvatori really is the center of a movie that should have been called Simone and his Brothers, if not Simone and his Enablers -- or, to be more fair to all the actors and more Dostoevskian yet, The Brothers Parondi. The film's faults are those of excess, along with a sense that there's more there than there actually is. But there is a lot of indisputably strong stuff here, and despite my complaints (unusual for me) about the length the film did not bore me. It only leaves you with the nagging question of whether it had to be as long as it was, but you might still go away thinking it a great film.


Jack L said...

interesting review, I watched and reviewed this not too long ago, but I seem to have been more impressed than you were...
I didn't have a problem with the length personally,and I thought that this was a really great film.
Great review though.

Samuel Wilson said...

Jack, I just read your review and I agree with your enthusiasm for The Leopard and 8 1/2. My problem with Rocco isn't so much the length -- since Leopard is even longer -- as a feeling of disproportion, a doubt of whether Visconti needed that length to tell that story. At the same time, I can't exactly tell you what could or should have been cut.

Jack L said...

I see what you mean.
I don't think Visconti really needed the film to be that long, but he did it anyway so he must have a reason for it.
I personally think there was just the right amount of content, to remove certain aspects would have lessened the impact but to add some would have made it too cluttered.
It's a pretty straightforward film, but it does tell a pretty enormous story, I think Visconti did well in that respect. I wasn't left feeling unsatisfied at all.

Jonny said...

"The film's faults are those of excess, along with a sense that there's more there than there actually is."

Sam I like what you say here and that's sort of my problem with a lot of Italian cinema from this era following neo-realism. Too much excess and bloatedness. I actually prefer what Antonioni and Pasolini were doing during this period in the early 60's, sort of stripping things down, while others, like Visconti and Fellini were just piling on the excess.

Samuel Wilson said...

Jack, I don't believe in trying to convince people that they shouldn't like a movie as much as they actually did. That's especially true when I don't really think a film like Rocco is actually bad. To the extent that we disagree about it, my response is: I'm glad you liked it better than I did.

Jonny: I think the problem with Rocco and La Dolce Vita is that Visconti and Fellini are clearly struggling with what they want to say and how they want to say it. The Leopard and 8 1/2 are superior films because the directors found proper vehicles to justify their "excessive" impulses and ambitions. I also like what Pasolini and Antonioni were up to at the same time, but by about 1963 all four directors were at or near the peak of their powers.

Jonny said...


You are correct sir and I completely agree. Even Antonioni would soon after succumb to the same excess that he initially shunned.