Combustible Celluloid
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With: Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, Katina Paxinou, Spiros Focas, Max Cartier, Nino Castelnuovo, Rocco Vidolazzi, Corrado Pani
Written by: Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosa,
Directed by: Luchino Visconti
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Italian with English subtitles
Running Time: 168
Date: 09/06/1960

Rocco and His Brothers (1960)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Fight Stuff

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The essayist Phillip Lopate came up with a perfect term to describe the films of Luchino Visconti: "operatic realism." Visconti (1906-76) often finds himself lumped in with the Italian neo-realists like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, mostly because his first film, Ossessione, was released here in the U.S. at around the same time as Rossellini's Open City and De Sica's Bicycle Thieves. But Ossessione was made years before -- and independently of -- the neo-realist movement.

And yet, Visconti's films do come with a healthy dose of realism. Born an aristocrat, Visconti first took an interest in the arts -- learning all about opera and theater before moving into cinema -- and then developed an unusually liberal worldview for someone in his position.

For example, in his second film, La Terra Trema, he not only told the story of everyday Sicilian fisherman rising up against the wealthy misers who controlled the marketplace, but he also cast real fisherman -- with nary a lick of acting training among them -- in the roles.

But possibly Visconti's most representative picture, the one that gets the closest to his own soul, is his 1960 film Rocco and His Brothers. It's comparable to his 1963 masterpiece, The Leopard. Clocking in at nearly three hours, Rocco and His Brothers follows a large Italian family as they leave their country home for the city streets of Milan.

As the title implies, the middle brother Rocco (Alain Delon, also in Purple Noon and Le Samourai) is the glue of the movie, and the glue of the family. As they face hard times, finding jobs, falling in love with the wrong girls, etc., Rocco tries to keep the peace.

But the most engaging storyline involves older brother Simone (Renato Salvatori) who becomes a boxer and falls in love with a prostitute, Nadia (Annie Girardot). Soon it becomes apparent that Simone's soul is not in the ring and he begins losing bouts.

After a stint in the army (just like Michael Corleone) Rocco steps in the ring himself and begins winning; he also wins Nadia's heart in the process. But the ruined Simone is not out of the picture; he beats Rocco to a pulp and rapes Nadia while Rocco watches, helpless.

Visconti offsets this gruesome centerpiece with contrastingly beautiful and happy moments, such as when the family awakens to find it snowing outside, or the gritty, exciting fight footage.

But the film's greatest achievement is its mixture of realism and melodrama. Visconti loves to let his camera really drift over the streets of Milan, gazing at undressed nooks and crannies full of daily grime and grunge. The people onscreen feel like real residents and not members of the Extras Guild dressed up in costumes.

And in this setting Visconti plunks the heightened emotions and screeching drama of the characters. Everything that happens stings mightily, as if the end of the world had come. Viewers might find this approach overwrought -- as in the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk -- but it's clearly deeply felt and totally honest.

It helps that Nino Rota's beautiful, passionate score is there helping things along. Rota is most closely associated with the films of Federico Fellini, but his work here ranks among his best.

In 2018, Milestone released an exceptional new Blu-ray edition of Rocco and His Brothers with a detailed restoration of images and sound. The result is marvelous, exceptional, even if probably not exactly perfect for some videophiles; a restoration demonstration shows just what poor condition the original was in. The two-disc set includes an introduction by Martin Scorsese, outtakes, a long (40-minute) interview with Caterina d'Amico, the daughter of writer Suso Cecchi d'Amico, and some older, video interviews with the cast and crew.

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