Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Rocco and His Brothers

Italy  France  (175 mi)  1960  d:  Luchino Visconti

Luchino Visconti was heir to one of Milan’s richest families, as his mother inherited the Erba Pharmaceuticals fortune, where young Visconti grew up training and breeding racehorses before fashion designer Coco Chanel introduced him to French filmmaker Jean Renoir, where he began his career as Renoir’s assistant director.  Despite living in great luxury in a palace on the Italian island of Ischia, where today there is a museum dedicated to his work, possessing original works by Picasso and Gustav Klimt, he was also an avidly outspoken Communist after the war and openly gay, where throughout his film career he also worked as a theater and opera director.  This apparent contradiction in class consciousness lies at the heart of his films, as along with Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini, Vittorio de Sica, and others, they forged an Italian neorealist movement in the late 1940’s, much of which was forced upon them as they had no money, featuring non-professional actors, or poorly paid stars, often shooting on the street as many film studios were destroyed by the war, mostly in the rundown sections of urban areas, featuring the plight of the poor and the lower working class, focusing on their everyday struggles to survive the economic disaster that was postwar Italy.  Despite his connection with neorealism, Visconti also revealed an operatic flair for artificiality, beautifully expressed in White Nights (La Niotti Bianche) (1957) which was shot entirely within the artificially constructed world inside the Cinecittà studios.  Visconti is acknowledged to be one of the greatest directors of women, including Clara Calamai in OBSESSIONE (1943), Anna Magnani in BELLISSIMA (1951), Alida Valli in SENSO (1954), Maria Schell in White Nights (La Niotti Bianche) (1957), and Annie Girardot in this film, where the latter two, Austrian and French-speaking, were both dubbed in Italian.  Manipulating men for sport, in each case these women are representative of dominating forces men can neither resist nor overcome.  Released the same year as Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA (1960), which won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA (1960), which won the Palme D’Or, the film was up against stiff competition, winning the FIPRESCI and Special Jury Prize at Venice. 

Often viewed as a flawed masterpiece, there remains an unreconciled tension between the realist, near documentary-style vision of a Marxist society and several over-the-top melodramatic moments where characters exhibit an operatic flair for excessive theatricality.  While not ruining the film, the exaggerations stand out as obvious contradictions to the otherwise low-key and brutally realistic style.  Adapted from the Giovanni Testor novel The Bridge of Ghisolfa, the story has an historical but also epic sweep about it, spanning more than a decade, following the continuing hardhips of the Parondi family as they leave behind their traditional rural home in Southern Italy for a major city in the industrial north, apparently one the first films to portray a North/South migration, where the nation’s so-called economic miracle occurs almost entirely in the North.  The film captures the essence of postwar Italy and the politics of class, set in the housing projects and working class sections of Milan, the city of Visconti’s birth, becoming a historically relevant time capsule portrait of a vanishing era.  As the title points out, there are five brothers, each represented by a different chapter in the film, including the oldest, Vincenzo (Spiros Focás), who is already living in Milan, in the midst of an engagement party with the family of his fiancé, Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale), when the rest of his family arrives in mass out of the blue, carrying all their belongings as they pay him a surprise visit.  It’s a surprise, all right, when the perspective bride’s family realizes they haven’t come to congratulate the happy couple, but to migrate permanently to Milan, where they certainly pose an immediate logisitics problem of where they can stay.  As quickly as they are welcomed with glasses of wine, the proud mother, Rosaria (Katina Paxinou, whose stereotypical long-suffering matriarch routine is almost cringe-worthy), realizes they’re seen as a financial burden and angrily grabs her sons, vowing never to return. Thus the family conflict begins. 

Given the ingenious advice by a relative to move into the cheap housing projects by paying first month’s rent, but after awhile, if you stop paying, they won’t throw you out on the street, suggesting this was quite common in Milan, as they’re already living in the city’s cheapest housing.  Simone, Renato Salvatori’s best role, is the next oldest, becoming completely smitten by the sexual exploits of a willfully manipulative local prostitute Nadia (Annie Girardot), whose family lives upstairs but continually kicks her out, so she takes refuge prancing around this house of brothers where Simone can’t take his eyes off her, much to his mother’s regret.  Jobs are scarce, but Simone picks up a few bucks in the boxing ring, but his first few wins go to his head, as he spends all his winnings on Nadia, filled with the deluded notion that his future is lined with victories.  But he drinks, smokes, and womanizes, refusing to train hard, which eventually catches up to him.  Enter the next brother, Rocco (Alain Delon, also dubbed), the quiet one with the pretty face, who initially works in a dry cleaners run exclusively by women who are all enthralled by his presence.  When Simone steals some clothing to impress Nadia, Rocco can’t go back to work there, so he follows his brother into the ring.  This habit of forgiving his brother and bailing him out of jams that he continually gets himself into is the central theme of the film, as Simone’s troubles only escalate, contrasting the traditional macho sexuality of animalistic men who think they own women as their exclusive property with those who feel genuine love and respect for them.  Envisioned by Visconti as the saintly Prince Myshkin from Dostoyevski’s The Idiot, “a representative of illustrious goodness as an end in itself,” Rocco is seen as the only saving grace holding the family together, even persuading Nadia to give up prostitution after spending a year in prison. 

But the story only grows bleaker, as Simone’s trajectory spirals further out of control, becoming a drunken brute that turns on his brother when he takes an interest in Nadia, enraged that Rocco is stealing “his” girl, as if he still owns her, even though he hasn’t seen her in years, leading to a horribly violent rape of Nadia in front of Rocco, followed by a vicious beating when his younger brother won’t apologize for what he’s done.  In a strangely baffling and utterly appalling moment framed atop the Milan cathedral, Rocco changes course and urges Nadia to return to Simone, knowing he’s a toxic entity, thinking this is somehow good for the family.  This is perhaps the key moment in the film, as Rocco’s saintly concern is not for Nadia, who’s been brutally raped, but for his brother’s fragile lack of self esteem.  The result is pathetic, of course, becoming a devastating critique of masculinity as seen through the lives of both Rocco and Simone, the two most developed characters of the film, especially when Simone and Nadia move under his mother’s roof, bringing nothing but endless shame to the family.  This is underlined further through a homosexual subtext, where a wealthy boxing promoter is attracted to Simone’s descent, where the promoter’s ultimate satisfaction is sexually taking advantage of fallen fighters that are so desperately in debt they’re willing to submit to anything.  This corrupt promoter ends up blackmailing the family afterwards, where Rocco signs away his future boxing earnings to pay off his brother’s enormously inflated debt.  In doing so, he becomes another wage slave while also abandoning his dream of returning to the South and reclaiming their lost land. 

The highly mobile, black and white cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno veers between ultra realism and heavily stylized film noir effects, with heavily darkened scenes during particularly murky moments, while Nino Rota’s musical score continually finds the right emotional counterpoint.  The film is clearly an influence of Martin Scorsese’s RAGING BULL (1980), where in each the fight sequences are beautifully handled, and also Francis Ford Coppola who chose Nino Rota to score his epic GODFATHER (1972, 1974) films.  At nearly 3-hours, allowing thorough exploration of the characters, the true scope of the film is an apocalyptic Greek tragedy played out within the context of larger historical forces, where perhaps the key to understanding the family’s psychological descent are the social circumstances they have to deal with, where the horrors of urban existence are all too common as jobs remain scarce.  But as Pauline Kael noted, it’s sexual passion that destroys the family, where the performances by Salvatori and Girardot are nothing less than stunning, culminating with a scene right out of Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck, a bleak, working class nightmare where in a crazed, jealous rage the protagonist kills the woman he loves, refusing to allow anyone else to have her, where it’s suggested this is due to the accumulated effects of poverty and economic exploitation, continually being beaten down by a society that allows him to have nothing.  The surreal nature of the act defies all moral boundaries and may be an irredeemable sin.  Simone’s crime destroys the unity of the family and their hopes of ever returning home, beautifully expressed in the bleak emptiness of the elegiac final shot, suggesting freedom, as represented by Rocco’s idealized hopes and dreams of being able to save Simone and/or his family, exists only in the abstract, while working class people must walk to the beat of the factory whistle where being a wage slave, exactly what they left the South to avoid becoming, is the only reality.

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