The Years of Lead was a period ranging from the late 1960s to the early 80s in which Italy existed in a state of civil unrest and suffered a surge in terrorism from both left and right-wing groups. This social turmoil provided fertile ground for filmmakers such as Francesco Rosi, who were willing to challenge the world around them with their art. He once explained that he was not making a study of the characters in his films, but of the society they inhabited. This position had perhaps shifted slightly by 1981’s Three Brothers, but it gives interesting context when examining this beautifully shot film of sublime grace, underwritten by an exploration of the tumultuous social landscape.
The combination of glowing elegy and meticulous political commentary isn’t always entirely successful, but it’s consistently fascinating. The eponymous siblings, who travel back to their rural home in the south upon the death of their mother, feel far more like ciphers than genuine people for the majority of the film. However, their loss is given wonderful pathos by the touching performance of Charles Vanel as their father, Donato. While his sons embody conflicting ideologies and give Rosi’s script opportunities for discourse, Donato’s quiet grief most keenly aligns with Pasqualino De Santis’ bucolic compositions and the poetic feeling coursing through the film’s various flashbacks.
It’s hard to say whether Donato bumping into his wife on the road to the nearby villages to the start of the film is a memory or a manifestation of his loss, but later the action jumps through time. It returns to the jubilation at the end of the Second World War and to Donato and his wife’s wedding day. For their sons, the leaps in time are daydreams and nightmares about the future. Raffaele (Philppe Noiret) is a judge in Rome whose life is ever under threat from terrorist attacks seeking to address perceived injustices and destabilise the system; he imagines his own murder, gunned down on a bus. Nicola (Michele Placido), his much younger brother, fantasises about an open-armed reunion with his estranged wife. He’s a factory worker in Turin renowned for standing against his employers and striking to affect change. He’s also almost an embittered future iteration of the optimistic Ciro at the end of Rocco and His Brothers.
Rocco is actually the name of the final Giuranna sibling (played by Vittorio Mezzogiorno, who also appears as the young Donato in flashback), a teacher now living in Naples, but it is through Raffaele and Nicola that Rosi opens a dialogue regarding political action and its consequences. One represents the system, the other a desire to tear it down – neither can understand the concerns of the other, nominally due to the generation divide between them. Instead Rosi allows both sides to make their arguments and steers clear of standing firmly on one side or the other. The slight problem with Three Brothers (and it is only slight) is that it lands between two stools in its approach as well.
There are numerous compelling elements to the narrative and subtext that could be studied at great length – not least the degrees of traditional masculinity found in the trio of patriarch, cuckold and celibate. Any frame of the film could be hung on the wall but the political conversation is the one that Rosi is ultimately most interested in and as such is the one that he leads the audience towards. It makes for a very fine film regardless but there’s an awful lot around the edges that warrants more attention.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson