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Rocco and His Brothers poster

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Rocco And His Brothers
cast: Alain Delon, Annie Giradot, Renato Salvatori, Katina Paxinou, and Claudia Cardinale

director: Luchino Visconti

170 minutes (15) 1960
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Eureka! DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
From the perspective of the world's first industrialised nation it is easy to forget that most of Europe operated as a rural economy well into the latter half of the 20th century. Britain's seemingly miraculous feat of standing alone in World War II had as much to do with the ability to refit ships, turn out tanks, and replace shot down planes, as to reserves of an indomitable national courage. Despite the picture postcard and chocolate box image of England, as rolling downs and quaint little villages, the reality is an increasingly urban environment replacing the age of manufacturing with a dependence on service industries. The miracle is that parts of the country can still seem relatively deserted.

In France, the aftermath of the war saw de Gaulle usher in a 30-year economic boom but neither he nor his successor Pompidou faced up to the need for modernisation. Reform in France was left to Giscard d'Estaing in the 1970s, and deeply unpopular it made him. The current administration is at odds with the population for similar reasons; in a country where it was said that planting a row of beans would qualify you for an EU agricultural grant there is still a reluctance to embrace the reality of the transition of the economy from the land to the town. As in France so elsewhere in Europe, and this 'peasant' mindset can appear strange to us in Britain raised to believe that the continent of Europe was the birthplace of urban sophistication.

The work of Italian director Luchino Visconti addresses transition, the passing of old ways, values and beliefs. Born into the aristocracy, Visconti embraced radical beliefs but his work was notable for its empathy and humanism rather than the espousing of political dogma.

The widow Rosaria Parondi (Katina Paxinou) takes her four sons Rocco (Alain Delon), Simone (Renato Salvatori), Ciro and Luca, to Milan to escape the rigours of their peasant existence in the south. They arrive as their elder brother Vincenzo is celebrating his engagement to Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale). Rosaria's suspicion and possessiveness almost immediately creates a rift between herself and Ginetta's family, and the Parondis go off to make their own way in the city, although Vincenzo and Ginetta will continue to meet in secret and eventually marry when Ginetta falls pregnant.

The brothers meet a prostitute Nadia (the excellent Annie Girardot) who tells them she is dating a boxer, and suggests that that is a way out of poverty and the commonplace life. When lazy Simone is picked up by a local gym and wins his first bout, Nadia is on hand to show him a good time.

Vincenzo works on a building site, Rocco has a job in a laundry, Ciro works at the new Alfa Romeo factory, while youngest Luca attends school and passes family messages to his brothers. When Simone gets too serious about Nadia, even stealing a broach from Rocco's employer to give to her, Nadia passes word through Rocco that she no longer wishes to see him.

Rocco is called up for military service and meets up with Nadia when he is demobbed; Nadia has served a sentence for soliciting and the two tentatively embark on a loving affair. Simone finds out and in a harrowing scene rapes Nadia and beats his brother. Rocco disturbed by the brutalisation of Simone, convinces himself that his brother's love for Nadia can redeem him, and sends Nadia back to him. The film has moved from an affecting neo-realist narrative of a family coping with social change to grim and inevitable tragedy.

A hopeless drunk, Simone is picked up by his former boxing promoter who, in a sweaty, and casually violent, although not explicit scene, reveals he has a physical interest in the boxers who come his way. When Simone steals from this man, Rocco accepts a contract with his own trainer to pursue the boxing career he hates in order to pay off Simone's debts.

Rocco embarks upon a boxing career and his hard work and dedication brings him success, while Simone becomes increasingly brutish, a figure of fun cadging drinks from his former sparring partners. He is told that Nadia is working from a car down by a sort of lagoon and he determines to visit her and plead with her to return to him. Renato Salvatori's characterisation of Simone is disturbing and hypnotic in this scene, as his expression suggests a little boy's smutty delight in the dirty jokes his former friends make about Nadia, coupled with a sort of immature greed as he imagines he might get back with her. Their paths cross again and, when Nadia emphatically rejects him, he stabs her repeatedly. The stabbing is brutally realistic, and made all the more harrowing by the fact that Nadia initially seems to welcome an end to her tragic life, but then pleads at the horror and the pain as the act is visited upon her.

A family celebration at Rocco's new champion status is punctuated by two sombre moments, Rocco expresses in a toast his sadness that the family ever left their pastoral existence in the south, and then a bloody Simone returns to the fold. The film lurches briefly into the melodramatic expressions of grief and heightened emotion that British comedy sketches in the 1960s used to parody foreign cinema. Appalled at Rocco and his mother's continued determination to make sacrifices for Simone, Ciro flees the house and, unable to catch him, Rocco acknowledges that Simone, and the family, is doomed.

In the final scene outside the Alfa Romeo factory, Luca tells Ciro that the police have caught Simone. The suspicion is that Ciro has given him up. While Ciro shares a scene of touching affection with his girlfriend and his work colleagues, Luca expresses the wish to return to the south with his brother Rocco. As Ciro returns to work, Luca walks away, briefly stroking his fingers across the pictures of the champion Rocco that decorate the newspaper booth outside the factory.

The information in the short documentary about Visconti in the extras package, that Rocco And his Brothers was partly drawn from a Thomas Mann short story titled Joseph And His Brothers, reinforces the religious overtones of the final image described above. Ciro at one point describes Rocco as a saint. It is not apparent where Visconti stands as regards Rocco's sacrifice; he records the tragic events with documentary fastidiousness. To a modern sensibility, Rocco's misguided actions condemn him to a life of unhappiness, and lead to Nadia's destruction. Simone is doomed anyway; the thing that Rocco thought might redeem him, his love for Nadia, is revealed to be an obsessive jealousy and simply accelerates Simone's self-destruction. Rocco must be condemned for his part in Nadia's eventual fate, but his actions elevate him to the status of some holy fool.

If the film explores the corrupting influence of the city, and Luca's ambition to return to some romanticised version of the family's pastoral roots is na�ve, then some hope may lie with Ciro, who of all the brothers seems best fitted to an urban, industrious and perhaps socialist future.

Disc two contains a wealth of extra material. A couple of newsreels provide some footage of awards ceremonies and comings and goings at airports. Some catty contemporary commentaries provide unintentional (or perhaps intentional) humour, as it is observed that Sophia Loren's sibling has had cosmetic surgery to make her look like her more famous sister once more. There is a making-of documentary, the original trailer for the film, and an interview with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno. There is an at times testy interview with Annie Girardot, who forgets that she is appearing in a homage to Visconti, by concentrating on her years at the Comedia Francais, and Jean Cocteau.

There is a further interview with the fiercely intelligent Claudia Cardinale. The interview with Rotunno reveals something about Visconti's techniques, but the interviews with the two stars say little about the man other than that he could be difficult and generous. Better is the documentary about Visconti that describes his aristocratic upbringing, his work during the fascist occupation, his enthusiasm for the work of Thomas Mann, and an interview with a rather stiff and patrician Burt Lancaster, as well as fine clips from Visconti's other films. It would have been nice to have something about composer Nino Rota whose work on Rocco And His Brothers is reprised in some themes later heard in The Godfather.

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