Review: Rocco and His Brothers


Four brothers with their shrew of a mother have left their farm and traveled to the big city of Milan to surprise and move in with the older, newly-engaged fifth son. Surprise, surprise.

“Rocco and his Brothers,” renowned as perfection in cinema, begins with artistic foreshadowing as it captures the Milan train station, with its trellised glass ceiling juxtaposed to dark jail-like bars in the foreground.

It’s these old intellectual European foreign film masterpieces that helped establish film as a bona fide art genre. “Rocco and his Brothers,” released in Italy in 1960, won awards for being the best European film of the year, and was compared to America’s “Grapes of Wrath,” released in 1940. This month it is playing in a retrospective at the Portland Northwest Film Center.

Part drama, part tragedy and part political diatribe, “Rocco” is ostensibly about an agrarian family that tries to establish itself in the city to escape the poverty and drudgery of farm life. However, it is in this pursuit that they are corrupted, a la communist rhetoric of the 50’s and 60’s. The new generation, represented by the youngest brother, witnesses the catastrophes of his family and yearns to return to the simplicity and wholesomeness of the farm.

“Rocco” is literally the story of men gaining their place in the world. It is also about love, loyalty and man’s potential for both Christ-like sacrifice and depraved selfishness. It is a 3-hour film that is divided into chapters, like a book or epic poem. Each section has the title of one of the 5 brother’s names. Perhaps each brother/chapter also portrays a facet of the modern man in all his innocence, nobility, responsible intentions, achievements and tragic fall.

Towards the end, in a wonderful Shakespearean-like summary of events and circumstances, a character turns on a TV. Projected not only on the TV but on the walls and tables throughout the room where the TV sits are views of classic Italian paintings, many depicting mythological and religious scenes reflective of the human condition and the experience of this troubled family.

At one moment the antagonist, Simone, is called “an Apollo” and with that the viewer is reminded of Apollo’s obsessive, ill-fated love for Daphne.

Like Daphne, the beautiful Nadia (superbly played by Annie Girardot), finds Simone, the brother who has no integrity, disgusting. Like Daphne, Nadia tells him that she despises him – with good reason. And like the mythological Helen, desire for Nadia by more than just Simone spurs the family into a hell of no return.

But also displayed on the screen is a vignette of Madonna and Child, just as Simone contracts with an underworld character. Opposites are constantly being juxtaposed. For example, brother is pitted against brother in a classic duel of ambition, jealousy and ego and is paralleled by allusions to the Italian civil struggle of north vs. south and agrarian vs. urban, with prostitutes and farmers, both used to sustain the bourgeoisie, forming the bottom of the proletariat pecking order.

I’ve read rave reviews through time about this film and was interested in viewing it, with its allusions, metaphors and political message. However, not all great films are necessarily fun to watch.

While some characters are attractive and likable, there is so much amiss, including the bullish, hysterical matriarch of this little cadre of male industry, that it was hard for me to sit tight and finish watching the film.

Please note, I am the lone critic out there with that viewpoint. The Tomatometer gives it a whopping 94 percent approval rating and critics through time give it an A+ as an example of superb film-making.

The Northwest Film Center – “Rocco and his Brothers”
Whitsell Auditorium, Portland, Ore.
March 23, 24 and 25

Film Credits

Director: Luchino Visconti
Opened: 1960 (Italy), 1961 (US)
Runtime: 180 minutes
Writing Credits: Luchino Visconti, Suso D’Amico, Vasco Pratoline, Pasquale Campanile, Massimo Franciosa, Enrico Medioli and Giovanni Testori.
Cast: Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, Katina Paxinou and Spiros Focas
Awards: Nine awards worldwide, including the BODIL for Best European Film and Sant Jordi for Best Actress

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