1960 was a memorable year for Italian cinema. It saw the releases of several major films: Federico Fellini’s legendary La Dolce Vita; the first instalment of Michelangelo Antonioni’s trilogy of decadence, L’Avventura; Vittorio de Sica’s Two Women, for which Sophia Loren won her Best Actress Oscar. Another of the major success stories of the year was a film by Luchino Visconti, a director spoken of far less often than his illustrious contemporaries. Rocco and His Brothers is a novelistic tragedy on an epic melodramatic scale. A social drama about mass internal migration during the economic boom, it serves as a crushing indictment of traditional forms of masculinity. Alain Delon stars as the charismatic and dutiful Rocco, though it would be difficult to tell from the opening third.
He melts unnoticed into the background as the Parondi family make a noisy arrival in Milan looking for direction from oldest son Vincenzo (Spiros Focas) after the death of the family head. His mother Rosaria (Katina Paxinou) is a strong matriarchal presence and they all set about looking for work at her behest. Employment is not forthcoming for poor southern lads, though and they share cramped slum quarters while struggling to makes ends meat. This was the case for many people migrating north when the south of the country failed to benefit from the economic prosperity of the late 50s. Visconti’s screenplay, co-written with Suso Cecchi D’Amico, sets out the attitudes towards and travails of such simple southerners trying to forge a path in the modern north in a loosely episodic format following each of the brothers in turn. Visconti once remarked that this migration was inherently tragic and he certainly brings that essence to the fore as his drama undergoes something of a metamorphosis.
While the brothers search for ways to adapt, Rocco and Simone (Renato Salvatori) emerge as the two real contenders to adopt the traditional patriarchal role and the film becomes ever more about the challenges of the relationship between them. Simone is a typical alpha male, who wantonly revels in moderate success as a prize fighter; Rocco relinquishes his own desires for the good of the family, first in menial work and then by enlisting in the army. He’s ostensibly a Christ-like figure, but his virtue is undermined as a result his actions during a conflict over a woman. He and local prostitute Nadia (Annie Girardot), who had previously had a fling with Simone, fall in love with one another – she is moved and changed by his innocence and optimism. Simone’s aggressive retaliation at their affair culminates in a horrifying rape. Rocco’s failure to prevent this may be upsetting, but far more troubling is his subsequent refusal to comfort or support her – instead he grieves for his misguided brother.
As their narratives dovetail, one seems to be spiralling down while the other excels but the foundation of Rocco’s success is corrupt. His selflessness is even more vexing as he pushes Nadia back into Simone’s brutish arms for the good of his sibling. Wedded to the family’s past – in the closing moments he longs to return to their rural homestead – his suitability suffers due to his unwillingness to take real action. Simone on the other hand is hyper-masculine and unruly (though a sub-plot that suggests a homosexual relationship is restored in this new cut and adds further complexity to his sexual predation). Its absorbing viewing and Visconti navigates the sprawling narrative and heightened drama with consummate aplomb. The handling of the incredible climax is superb and harrowing, juxtaposing apparent victory with the terrible cost to the individual. Rocco and His Brothers is operatic tragedy on a Greek level and its final scene atonally finds cynicism and homogeny in the optimism of Italy’s future.