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Tuesday, 19 July 2011

International/Classic Review: Rocco e i Suoi Fratelli - 1960

For some reason I've never really been able to get into Italian Cinema. By which I mean the golden age of Cinecitta, with famed directors such as Fellini, Bertolluci etc... Recent Italian films are a whole other story.
But I had seen a few, some, like Il Conformista by Bertollucci, were disappointments and dampened my enthusiasm for Italian Cinema, but others such as Luchino Visconti's Il Gappardo made their way into my list of all time favourites.
In fact, seeing Il Gappardo was very much a turning point for me, before then I had just assumed that Italian Cinema was "not for me". Fortunately, I was wrong. Il Gappardo lead to Fellini's 8 1/2 which I loved and since then I've found myself enjoying Italian Cinema much more than ever before.

But one of the highlights would definitely be a film I watched recently, by Luchino Visconti again, named Rocco e i Suoi Fratelli or Rocco and His Brothers.

It's a film that may appear simple at first glance, but hides a depth of emotion and a maturity that is increasingly hard to find in Cinema. Rocco and His Brothers is a film about conflict, family, tainted love and much more.
It is a masterpiece and only confirms what I had suspected, that Visconti is one of Cinema’s most talented directors, who sadly doesn't get as much praise or recognition as his less talented compatriots such as Bertollucci and Antonioni.

Rocco And His Brothers is a masterpiece of Neo-Realism.Visconti was one of the founders of this movement, along with Rossellini and De Sica, and remains to this day one of the most important figures in Italian Cinema. And yet, he is nowhere near as well known as Antonioni or Bertollucci, two other Italian directors whose work I don't particularly like but who have somehow become relatively widely known amongst film buffs. I found that while Fellini and the other previously mentioned pair come up very soon in ones search for film knowledge, Visconti tends to turn up considerably later, which is a shame in my opinion. But then again, maybe that's only my personal experience, so, on with the review:

A family from the South of Italy, Lucania to be exact, arrives in Milan (which is in the North for those who don't know). This small group is composed of four brothers, Simone (Renato Salvatori), Rocco (Alain Delon), Ciro (Max Cartier) and Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi), and their mother (Katina Paxinou), and they are on their way to meet the eldest brother, Vincenzo (Spiros Focas).
The family arriving in their new home in Milan.
Little do they know, their elder brother is celebrating his recent engagement to Ginetta, a Milanese woman. His mother is shocked to see him celebrating when he should be mourning the recent death of their father. Trouble is started, which leads to the whole family, including Vincenzo, leaving and having to find quarters in a rundown apartment complex.
After doing a few odd jobs the sons eventually run in to a boxing agent who takes an interest in Simone. While Simone starts out on a new city life as a boxer, along with a prostitute he has become enamoured with, Nadia; Rocco has found a steady job and the family on the whole seems to be adapting well to this new lifestyle. However soon trouble breaks out as Simone's lifestyle quickly becomes to excessive for him to support and starts having a negative impact on his family, this isn't helped by the disreputable Nadia. 
Soon the family finds itself in turmoil as Simone goes off the rails and Nadia leaves him for Rocco, this causes a terrible confrontation to occur between Simone and Rocco with consequences that will reverberate through each characters live and eventually bring them all to despair.

An aspect that I found to be particularly impressive was the fact that the director and writers were always careful not to judge the characters. Of course, Rocco is a saint and Simone is a nasty character, and this is made very clear, but at times Rocco's generosity and forgiveness becomes intensely frustrating, and similarly we also pity Simone. This makes the film infinitely better than it would have been if the characters would have been less developed. But as it is, it's a work of genius.
Furthermore, when arguments arise throughout the film, one of the more interesting being the argument between Rocco and his brother in which Rocco claims they would have been better off staying in the countryside for it was their relocation to Milan that brought all this tragedy upon them, then they are always handled objectively and intelligently, providing the film with some surprisingly thought provoking pieces of dialogue.  
It would have been easy for the director to stick with this aforementioned theme of the sorrow of a family come to the city and make the film into a whole nostalgia laced story, but instead his brothers claims that had they stayed, they would have continued living in abject poverty, treated like slaves working hard land for very little pay; thus taking a more realistic approach and abandoning nostalgia or romanticism to create a masterpiece of Neo Realistic Cinema.
So as well as having a film that presents both sides of the arguments, we also have quite a brilliant deconstruction of the romanticised vision of Italy many people have. This of course was one of the main aims of the Neo-Realistic movement.

The gap between North and South is shown brilliantly here, with the Milanese seeing these Southerners as hillbillies and layabouts. This is only a small portion of the social commentary contained within, for we also have reflections upon the benefits of city life compared to that of country life, disparaging of the ultra rich etc...

As well as this North versus the South theme we also have the most interesting theme of city versus countryside. This is suggested through the characters, and the story as a whole. Rocco is clearly representative of the countryside, simple yet trustworthy and likeable. However, Simone is more representative of the city, charming yet wily with few morals.
Furthermore, in the beginning of the film, the family arrives, very close-nit straight out of the countryside. However as the film progresses, the family slowly drifts apart, again representing the differences between countryside, where families and people in general are more closely knit, and city, where anonymity is far easier and families busier thus they spend less time together than they would in the country where there is less to divert oneself with.

Although the film is divided into several parts, each one bearing the name of one of the brothers, the main theme still remains the conflict between Rocco and Simone, the first segment entitled Vincenzo serves as an introductory piece while final segment called named after the youngest brother called Luca, serves as a conclusion.
In fact, the entire film centres around Rocco's relationship with one of his four brothers, the other three are little more than supporting characters that make brief appearances then fade away.
And caught in this conflict between the two opposites, is Nadia.She is an indecipherable character. 
The "love triangle" between Simone, Nadia and Rocco is certainly one of the finest examples of such a plot device I've ever seen in a film. But it is also one of the most emotionally twisted. I won't go into any details because I would end up spoiling one of the most thrilling, disturbing and powerful moments of the film.
Due to the many scenes involving accusations one cannot help but wonder if (amongst other things), it really was Nadia that "corrupted" Simone, as some are quick to claim. It may seem that way at first and it surely would have been easier for the film to take that direction and lay the blame upon Nadia thus having a conventional “villain”, but fortunately it is much more developed and complex than it seems at first. Nadia was clearly just a poor soul, a fallen person but who could be saved, and indeed she was saved by Rocco, for a while. Perhaps she did draw out the darker side in Simone, but if so it was a side that has always been there.

The boxing element, a theme used abundantly throughout the history of Cinema, from the hilarious antics of Charlie Chaplin in the ring in City Lights, to becoming a staple of classic Film Noirs, to making a reappearance in the 70's with such films as Rocky and Fat City (two very different films I might add) and of course Raging Bull, to suddenly reappearing recently after the success of The Fighter. (Another boxing film will be released soon, entitled The Warrior, as well as the ridiculous looking Hard Steel, a futuristic robot boxing film)
This element is representative of the many themes of the film that revolve around conflict. Conflict between Rocco's nature and that of Simone, conflict between North Italy and South, conflict between City and Countryside... And with the boxing scenes, with are subtly spread throughout the film at particularly important turning points for the characters and the plot, represent this perfectly.

Another interesting theme of the film is forgiveness, Rocco is described several times as a saint, and this isn't hard to believe as he's almost impossibly kind, forgiving and generous. But his forgiveness and generosity is questioned when faced with the horrendous acts of jealously and despair carried out by Simone.
Is the younger brother Chiro right? Sometimes is it better not to forgive? Are there some things one cannot forgive? Each person will have their own answers to the film I'm sure, but I couldn't help feel that Rocco's good-nature went too far and at times caused more harm than good especially when one reflects upon the horrors Simone submitted upon him.
As much as this film is a product of the realist movement and consequently avoids any romanticism, I cannot help but think that the character of Rocco is slightly out of place here. He seems to have strolled straight in from a fairy tale, with his limitless generosity, kindness and self sacrifice.  It is hard to believe that such a person would exist in reality; of course I may be being too cynical.  But for a man to sacrifice the woman he loves, his money and many years of his future by agreeing to sign a contract he has no desire to sign, only to help a brother who hates him. 

As always, I must say a word about the technical side of this film, even though it is not the most interesting aspect, it still deserves a certain amount of recognition.
On the whole the cinematography isn't meant to be particularly stunning; it is after all a product of the realist movement, so it remains very simple, with many long static takes and minimal camera movements. But there are nonetheless some shots that stand out and all in all it’s expertly filmed in an unassuming way. I particularly liked the fact that there was much depth to the scenes. By this I mean, that while the action of the scene may be taking place in the foreground, the background was not neglected by the director and is full of activity which may be distracting at times, but adds a considerable amount of realism to the film, which I’m sure was the director’s intent. It's something that I'm sure not everyone always notices, I certainly don't, but here it caught my eye quite often.
The close ups in particular were striking. This technique is one that has been over used in recent years to a point when no one even notices it any more. But when watching an older film, I couldn't help but be struck by the perfectly placed but relatively far between close ups of the actors. Such a shot, a simple short shot placed at the right time, can greatly enhance the scene, in my opinion this is something modern directors should keep in mind.

 Thankfully Visconti didn't go for a depressing ending. Instead it is shown that the characters can move on from this terrible drama that has beset them, and the film ends with a hope filled shot of the youngest son walking away, certainly not unmarked by what he and his family had been through, yet still innocent and hopeful for his future.

All in all, while the film does have its flaws, such as occasional moments of extreme melodrama, some slightly unconvincingly staged scenes which to a modern viewer will seem stilted and unnatural, and the fact that the length (near on 3 hours) might put some people off.
It is still a masterpiece of filmmaking, perhaps not from a technical standpoint, although it should not be entirely overlooked in that respect, but rather from a storytelling standpoint. It has a great story, and it tells it exceptionally well, aided of course by the fantastic performances, especially by Alain Delon. I would not hesitate to recommend it to fans of World Cinema, although it may not be ideal for those just starting to explore international films.
Rocco and his Brothers is ultimately somewhat of a forgotten masterpiece, a staple of the Neo Realist movement and an unforgettable film all around.

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