Written by Stuart Kurtz

Italy, 1960. 168 min. Titanus. Cast: Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, Katina Paxinou; Music: Nino Rota; Cinematography: Giusseppe Rotunno; Produced by: Goffredo Lombardo; Written by: Luchino Visconti, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Vasco Pratolini; Directed by: Luchino Visconti

Coming out of the Neo-Realist tradition which he founded (Ossesione being the first, La Terra Trema, Senso), Visconti found a way to turn the inexorable defeat of characters in this form into heroic action that might help them out of poverty and despair. Neo-Realist heros traveled hopefully, but they were at one with the world and so at its mercy. The Valostra family in La Terra Trema might gird themselves for battle against the wholesalers and the sea, but their hope was not enough up against the social and climatic forces that inevitably win against the little person. Rocco and His Brothers departs from this formula. Here “the weight of history and the social is a realism to be overcome” The world is hard to the Parondi’s, yet they will not, we assume, give up the fight even after their downfall, as do the Valostras. In the end their climb is too far, their knowledge of history is too great to keep them down to the count of ten. And it is the audiences who can take up their fight too – apropos of film in the first year of the 1960’s.

Rocco does have Film Noir predelictions ( the femme fatale, Nadia, expressionistic lighting), and carries a semi-documentary style (the grittiness of boxing, impromtu street scenes), but those weren’t up to the task aforementioned. It was through the Bourgeois tradition of melodrama that Visconti found voices for his heros.

Melodrama was not only, as Visconti said, at the boundaries of life and art, but also at the boundaries of an older elite culture and a ‘mass’ culture.

It was the “theatricalization of reality” that gave voice and power to the Parondis. The social order is repressive, and the film captures that in the docu-drama techniques. The form to take to fight that is through art, and the non-pareil art form in Italy to express strong emotion is opera.

The film concerns the Parondis, who, after the death of the patriarch, travel to Milan to start a new life. One son, Vincenzo, has already started out in the city and is engaged to a respectable woman. The family secures housing and goes through hard times until Simone makes it big in the boxing ring. Rocco joins the army and eventually finds acclaim in the ring. The two brothers get involved with a prostitute, Nadia, leading to tragic conclusions. All the while, Rosaria, the matriarch, tries to hold the family together.

Sources for Rocco include Il Ponte della Ghisolfa; I Ricordi ei I rimorsi; and Un Letto, una Stanza, all about a love triangle between a woman and two brothers. Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, Giovanni’s I Malavoglia, Gramsci’s essay The Italian Question were used. Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, in its pure innocent in a corrupt world whose goodness provokes evil and link between a moral universe and a social-historical one, was important. And of course…Verdi.

The migration north by a few million Southerners after World War Two stretched the resources of the North and brought traditional patriarchal and close-knit family culture against industrialization and urbanity, threatening or destroying that warmth and humanity by neo-capitalist and neo-bourgeois values. The tough city of Milan holds a competitive citizenry who make moral compromises to get ahead. Boxing is a trope for this struggle.

Capitalism is higher than the family here. Ciro must identify with Alfa Romeo as his workplace family. Nadia’s game is sex for lire. Rocco’s and Simone’s relations extend to the arena, not just the private realm. Rosaria is more concerned in showing off her new digs than in Rocco reconnecting to the clan. Self-worth is equated by most players with fiscal earnings. Witness Nadia, after Rocco disavowing the longings of his family, such as a car, and city life, say “What do you think of me?”, as if she were a car. Rocco measures his sexual prowess with that of boxing and bread-winning.

Although the protagonists, save for Rocco, cannot see the larger social causes for their grapplings, they can convey them. Nadia explains her jail time, and then Rocco recounts how neighbors back home struggled with the land and started a protest but were arrested (La Terra Trema). Nadia’s fight to survive by prostitution is like other social forms of struggle.

As any good Marxist will tell you, the magic show and focus of Capitalism is on the sacred commodity. Witness the train washers in the station lavishing care on the trains in contrast to the bedraggled Parondi’s. When Rocco is weltering in the street after his fight with Simone, a passing car means indifference. And the train whistle that sounds during the rape seems to confess its part, as industry and capital, in this affair. Perhaps the most telling is at the close, as Luca passes multiple likenesses of Rocco on posters. It’s an Andy Warhol moment: Rocco has been reduced to an image, a commodity.

Visconti uses Christian imagery and nomenclature affectively. Rocco was the patron saint of the sick. Simone (Simon) was changed to Peter, and another Simon bore the cross. Rosaria refers to Mary, “Our Lady of the Rosary”. Nadia, though not Biblical, is from the Russian Nadezhda, for hope. Simone wants to love, but he doesn’t have what it takes to make it in the city. His passion and theatrics, his rages against the world come from his love and faith in mankind. Ciro tells Luca that a stonemason back home throws a stone on a shadow of the first passer-by because you have to make a sacrifice to build a house. Then the camera pans over Simone’s picture. Ciro’s re-telling the family history resembles a hagiography. The early Christian saints also stood up against history and the social order and were sacrificed for it. They were saints cum activist-agitators. One heroine’s demise evinces the Crucifixion as she meets her end against a telephone pole (sacrificed to industry?). She raises her arms for one last kiss of her lover/killer. Death and love come together, as at Calvary.

Visconti best conveys Christianity against secularity by filming Rocco and Nadia on top of the Milan cathedral instead of in front of it. Rocco tells Nadia to return to Simone. It is a Christian sacrifice. The camera frames the city through the trefoils and pinnacles of the cathedral. It is the city that is the focus, and religion is the weaker contender. Rocco’s sacrifice is Christian; Nadia’s persistence is secular, represented by the city (Satan tempting Jesus on the mountain with the cities of the Earth would not be out of line here).

Aside from scripture, the presense of myths is so relevant in Rocco. The Parondi’s enstill the hope of returning to the South in Luca; youth is the best repository for myths. Adults are too beaten down by the world. The myth of the north is based on worldly advantage. That of the South is based on humanism. As the planned beginning of the Parondi’s dropping the father’s casket into the sea didn’t make it past the editors, the South and home can sustain itself as a myth of a better place. Social reality comes up against the myth of success in the North.

The novel juxtaposes mythic, primal forces and historical, social ones…

They feed on large myths but must wither when testing their limits.

…the power of the film lies in the dream to go beyond the limitations imposed by the social; and to that degree, to the degree it touches those limitations and boundaries, it indicates their power. It is not the social and economic which succumb to dreams in Rocco, rather it is the dreamers who are defeated by the solidity of a reality they only completely accept in being crushed by it.

When Duili Morini begins to seduce Simone, he switches on the T.V., and it divides the two in the frame. Media is the, ur, medium for relations, including sexual ones. As was the train whistle, it is somehow the T.V. that is responsible for this mess. It is telling that the images are of art treasures. Television and film, in the wrong hands, can be used to seduce the masses (like Morini’s seduction). The real art treasures on the screen are appropriated to make persuasive images that play on people’s weaknesses. The film is really about images and how the icon-makers use them to activate people toward working for the pursuit of commodities. Think of Alfa Romeo, pro sports, advertising, cruise ships. They are the deus ex macchina for the times.

As Sam Rohdie says, it is Rocco’s, Simone’s, Rosaria’s, and Nadia’s attempts to fight history that causes their suffering. It exposes the social reality that has brought about their ignoble conditions. Their ravings against it through the melodramatic form allow them to utter their sorrows, just as in opera.

(They) are mythological beings who incarnate all that is exceptional in a world in which almost everything is moderate. It makes of them, even in their vulgarity, aristocrats.

Perhaps Visconti uses them as mouthpieces for his own polemic against a world sadly changed by capital and industry from his aristocratic and bourgeois roots, which valued humanism and art as tools against injustice.

Rohdie remarks that characters out of touch with the social reality that are most real, and that those in touch with it are false (Ciro, Vincenzo). He says the film’s sado-masochistic acts let the viewer face depths of cruelty and eroticism through melodrama that let him judge and realize the social forces that created them. In an attack, two characters embrace and kiss. In writhing with each other on the bed and fighting on the lot, Rocco and Simone hug. In these acts between brothers could be homoerotic feelings, but there is surely brotherly love. Simone’s meeting with Morini may be to get out of debt, but it could be to dispel erotic feelings for Rocco. Those feelings are about love rather than attraction. Violence is a way of rebelling against repression. At least the hysterics and violence come out of a longing for liberation. It is the social sphere that represses and sublimates those feeling in Ciro’s mechanized production at Alfa Romeo, in Rocco’s military service, in the sports arena.

Expression against the oppression of society is also a political protest. Any act of eruptive emotion is against oppression, wherever its source. Any art is a political protest too. Furthermore, vehement exprssion of emotional turmoil is often the basis for great art; it is art itself. Such is the case with the melodrama in this film. Rohdie says the sordid is transformed into beauty through art, just as Gustav Aschenbach idealizes the young boy while he and Venice sink into decay and inevitable death. Making the ideal of beauty all the more beauteous.

Art helps then to clarify reality and endow it with signifigance, while also saving reality by beautifying it.

Art is a way too to escape reality and allow reflection on it. It redeems the sins of its players because we know it all is illusion. The Parondis are fallen at the close, but a real family like the Paronid’s does not have to take this path. Visconti warns it how to avoid the mistakes, although he doesn’t offer solutions. This is the greater hope in Rocco, the hope for real change. Some success in that lies in the fact that Alain Delon, Katina Paxinou, and Annie Girardot not only escape their filmic fates, but they are the real aristocratic keepers of the flame of Visconti’s bourgeois heritage.

In the end it is the film which wins.

The dream has to be extruded through hard reality –twisted, tortured- until reality wins, and the dreamers are defeated, except the dreamers in the audience. They have work to do.

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