Often cited as the Golden Age of Italian Cinema, the neorealist period of post-World War II filmmaking focussed on the difficult economic and social conditions of the time. Frequently set amongst the poor or working classes, these films represented the desperation and oppression suffered by many during everyday life. One of the key exponents of Italian neorealist cinema was Luchino Visconti and in 1960 he released perhaps his last true film of this genre; Rocco And His Brothers.
Arriving in Milan, after leaving the “down South” of their birth Rocco (Delon) and his four brothers struggle to establish their place in a society that immediately rejects them. Accompanying their mother Rosaria (Paxinou) the family, who are without money but retain hope, are abandoned by their future in-laws yet strive to prove themselves to a city that threatens to destroy their close bond. Rocco’s elder brother Simone (Salvatori) falls in with a crooked boxing promoter and local prostitute Nadia (Girardot), whose subsequent relationship with the innocent Rocco proceeds to tear the family apart.
An acclaimed opera director Visconti brings more than a touch of the lavish to Rocco And His Brothers as the emotional impact of the central story threatens to tip over into ripe melodrama, and yet impressively doesn’t. For half its running time this is a gritty tale of societal struggle, as the family overcomes one setback after another as they claw their way slowly up a slippery ladder. Latterly, though, this is a film that ignores its previous slow pacing and sprints towards extreme situations that, while surprising, never feel contrived. This successful balance is primarily down to the credibility Visconti has built up throughout, giving great depth to characters you neither truly love nor loathe, but whom you are powerless not to invest in.
It is impossible to identify one performance over another, such is the strength of the assembled cast, but Renato Salvatori broods and smoulders through every scene he is present in. Contrary to the innocence that Alain Delon’s Rocco struggles with when faced with the most extreme pressure, it is a performance full of portent and foreboding; you know something bad is coming for this character, you just never get a true handle on what.
While there truly is little to fault in Visconti’s epic, this isn’t a film that you will likely revisit. Social realism coupled with often-intense emotional and operatic drama is a heady mix that will not be to everyone’s tastes, yet it is a film that really should be seen. As an example of both Visconti’s work and Italian cinema of the period, it is arguably unrivalled. A worthy addition to any film collection.
ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (1960) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: LUCHINO VISCONTI / SCREENPLAY: LUCHINO VISCONTI, SUSO CECCHI D’AMICO, PASQUALE FESTA CAMPANILE, MASSIMO FRANCIOSA, ENRICO MEDIOLA / STARRING: ALAIN DELON, ANNIE GIRARDOT, RENATO SALVATORI / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW