These brothers may be a little too close
“Viscontiesque” doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, and hasn’t entered the language as “Felliniesque” has. But Visconti’s movies are at least as distinctive as Fellini’s even if they’re less well known at this point in cultural history. He’s best remembered as a pioneer of neorealism and later a chronicler of corruption in individuals (Death in Venice) and dynasties (The Damned). And of course, there are those ever-welcome queer undertones rippling through all his films, including the earliest, the 1943 Ossessione.
Rocco and His Brothers (1960), released by Image Entertainment without extras but in an excellent transfer (the best to date), solidly occupies a middle-ground between the director’s neorealist impulses and his decadent/operatic tendencies, but there’s nothing middling about it. It’s one of the great Italian melodramas, an irresistibly over-the-top three-hour exploration of class war, personal downfall and redemption, mother love and brother love that fuel the family for better and worse.
After the death of her husband, Rosaria Pardoni packs up four of her five sons and heads from peasant poverty in southern Italy to the sophisticated but scary north (Milan). The fifth son, Vincenzo, has already established himself there, and is not expecting company. The Pardonis are instantly recognizable, a pathetic but hopeful troupe hobbling through the streets in their country clothes, clutching tattered suitcases and bags of oranges, and enduring the ridicule of passersby.
The film is artfully divided into five sections, each nominally devoted to a different brother. But typically these are ultimately arbitrary distinctions. With a drama this high-pitched and a family this close – and you won’t find a closer one without checking the incest records – each of their stories spills in and out of the other in the way of grand-scale epics.
Garrulous, unsinkable matriarch Rosaria (the great Greek actress Katina Paxinou) keeps tight control of the boys, at least initially. Determined not to be smashed by poverty she inspires them to upward mobility through sheer force of personality. And it takes a primal force like Rosaria to steer them through Milan’s teeming hell of looming tenements and bleak streets.
Of course, even mother love can’t assure this ragtag band success in the Big City. But the boys have their own weapons that will propel them far indeed: guts, grit, and matinee-idol good looks.
Each of these sexy brothers represents a type – upright Ciro (Max Cartier), naïve Simone, self-sacrificing Rocco (Alain Delon), etc. – but Visconti, whose extensive experience as a stage director may have made him more than usually sensitive to actors, elicits superbly gritty performances, guiding them out of the stereotype into full-bodied characterizations.
The boys – and Rosario – do find success, but the price is high. They finagle their way into a ramshackle apartment but end up alienating Vincenzo, whose fiancée’s family refuses to take them in. Simone becomes a successful boxer but also a drunk, a thief, and a rapist. Ciro gets steady work in a car factory, to the joy of Rosaria and the disgust of Simone. To his mother’s horror, Simone takes up with a whore, Nadia (Annie Girardot), who falls in love with Rocco, widening the rift between the devoted brothers. And so it goes, toward the inevitable tragedy.
Some of the most powerful scenes in Rocco are the ones that by most reckonings shouldn’t work. Viewers used to seeing Delon’s super-cool persona of the ’60s will be alarmed, though ultimately moved, by his screaming hysterics in the penultimate scene, when he’s forced to face some grim truths about Simone. This is one of the defining “operatic” scenes in all of Visconti’s work, with the characters almost diagrammatically choreographed and their screaming fits – alternating with brooding silences – practically arias. That it’s genuinely affecting is a tribute to the director’s meticulous character development.
Homoeroticism is blessedly rampant throughout Rocco. Someone once said that Visconti “cast with his dick,” though unfortunately there’s no footage of this process taking place. Still, the parade of gorgeous male flesh, the lingering close-ups on these men who are still somehow boys, supports the idea, giving the film a sensuality that sets it apart from other films of the period, Italian or not. When Simone, who has the unmistakable whiff of rough trade, takes a shower after a boxing match, it’s a toss-up who’s doing the heaviest cruise on his hunky form: the camera, as directed by Visconti; or the blatantly queer impresario who’s “taken an interest” in Simone and his ample “natural gifts.” The relationship of Rocco and Simone also plumbs the depths of homoerotic attachment, and Rocco’s anguish at Simone’s increasingly disastrous life – at one point he’s a virtual rent boy – is one of the most moving elements in the film.
Annie Girardot’s prostitute Nadia also shows Visconti’s refusal to sugarcoat his vision. Her spiral from charismatic and self-assured cynic to bitter victim, ruined as much by the boys’ unnatural devotion to each other as by the exigencies of her lifestyle, is a sight to behold. And one the censors preferred not to behold.
Queer Marxist-aristocrat Visconti had enormous problems with Italy’s homophobic, reality-phobic government and church. The powers-that-be weren’t exactly thrilled that Rocco was unabashedly documenting the desperate shift in population from south, with its crushing poverty, to the north, which was threatening to sink under the weight of all those emigrants. Visconti was denied promised permits, forced to shoot in unsuitable locations, and humiliated when deep cuts were made and other scenes in this visually arresting film were darkened to obscure the action. And it couldn’t have pleased the director that Rocco‘s troubles were credited with inspiring authorities to attack less fierce films that came later, including Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Antonioni’s L’Avventura.
Rocco is also a bracing reminder to those who are coming to the genre through overrated works like Todd Haynes’ embalmed Far from Heaven, or those who haven’t seen a real example in a while, just how powerful the melodrama can be.