Sunday, 2 March 2008

Rocco and His Brothers (Visconti, 1960)

So... those Italians pretty much stole the cinematic limelight in 1960, eh? Fellini's La Dolce vita and Antonioni's L'Avventura are wondrous achievements, and amongst my fave films ever. But Luchino Visconti may well be my favourite Italian director of them all... well, if he wasn't before then he's more than likely won that title now that I've seen Rocco and His Brothers - his own contribution to that extraordinary year in film.

Visconti's film is a melodrama of epic proportions, enriched by the decision to treat it with a realist aesthetic (of sorts.) The effects of this dichotomy make for exhausting viewing: Visconti's earthy presentation not only grounds the socio-political concerns of his saga, but simultaneously highlights the discrepancy that exists between style and narrative thereby allowing the inevitable tragedies to amplify considerably as a result. This isn't simply melodrama for the sake of it - the meticulously-plotted fortunes of the Parondi brothers are a filmic embodiment of the immigrant experience itself. Structurally, Rocco consists of five uneven segments that are (very) loosely based around each of the five siblings. Each brother deals with the issue of potential urban alienation differently, with their dreams and setbacks subsequently charged by the parallelling ordeals of thousands of others, motivating the film's drive towards operatic excess. Within this grandiosity however, lies an identifiable sense of honesty that allows (and sometimes even forces) its audience to share in the characters' hardships, and lends a universality to a film that's quintessentially Italian in its nature.

Rocco is, at its essence, a story about cultural displacement - specifically, the transportation of the traditional family-oriented codes of southern Italy's peasant villages into the industrial conurbation of Milan in the north. Over the course of 170 minutes, Visconti reveals the futile attempts to reconcile these two worlds and their opposing value systems. It follows then, that over those three hours we also bear witness to the breakdown of the Parondi family unit, set against the backdrop of an impervious 'modern world.' Tellingly, the two brothers that most successfully engage with this new environment (Vincenzo and Ciro) are also the two revealed to have the least concern for their background, and are ensuingly provided with scant weight in the dramatic showdowns that define the film. It is with the sensitive, sentimental brothers - the corrupted, hot-headed Simone and the backward-looking dreamer of Rocco - with whom the impassioned core of the film is allineated. Accordingly, it is they who enact the bulk of this filmic 'opera' alongside Nadia: the woman who comes between them, thus functioning as the catalyst for all the drama.

Nadia is a character who defies traditional notions of sexuality, unlike the men that she associates with: it's she who sees Simone as another fling, whilst it's he who insists upon a serious relationship; and her ennobling love for Rocco is countered by his steadfast devotion to preserving the family unit. The dynamics of the Rocco-Nadia-Simone relationship shatter each character's dreams of romance, an act that proves to be catastrophic for these most impulsive of brothers: Simone slides into barbarism and financial debt, and Rocco suffers heartbreak and an unwanted career in order to save his brother. Rocco's self-sacrifice is in vain however, for he clings to ideals that are rendered irrelevant by his new surroundings and his overwhelming capacity for forgiveness does more to destroy Simone (and by consequence, the entire Parondi family) than it does to save him.

The director's dedication to emotional detail here is as acute as ever, in spite of his expansive scope. To this end, he gains explosive performances from his cast members (Annie Girardot's Nadia and Renato Salvatori's Simone in particular are up there with the greats), ensuring that the theatrics are never less than utterly absorbing. Moreover, he uses editing to create a series of dramatic juxtapositions that maximise the film's volatility - scenes infused with promise and hope are frequently followed by those that destroy such illusions, hurtling both character and audience back to painful reality. The film's most brilliant sequences are also it's most harrowing: Nadia's rape, in which Visconti aligns us with Rocco's perspective of paralyzed horror; and her later murder by Simone, in which the intercutting between her screams and Rocco's victory in the boxing ring not only heightens the rhythmic violence of this world, but also implicates the younger brother in his former lover's death. If one feels compelled to look away in disgust during these scenes (as I did), it's because director and actor do a terrific job of winning our belief in these damaged individuals. After all, the irresistible optimism radiated in an early sequence - where the still-united brothers are nudged by their mother out into the snow to find work - is as difficult an image to etch from one's memory as the tragedy of later scenes. Although subsequent events cast a shadow over the reading of this initial portrait as familial affinity, it's one that persists - and one that becomes almost a necessity after our final image of the main characters in Rosaria's bedroom.

Visconti's elaborate meditation on the eradication of national unity and spiritual harmony is, needless to say, an experience of tremendous power. Thankfully, the director is merciful enough to provide us with some compensation for our exhaustion at film's end with the character of Luca - the fifth, and youngest, brother. Luca exists in Rocco's epic canvas as less a fully-fledged character and more a reflection of our own role: the quiet observer, learning from and being affected by the wreckage around him. By gently guiding him towards the faint possibility of a more progressive future, Visconti is effectively talking to his audience as well. Where Rocco, Simone, Vincenzo and Ciro have failed, maybe... just maybe, the rest of us can succeed?

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