Visconti's epic film about family, loyalty and the forces of economics is a perfect combination of the neo-realist traditions of his past ('Ossessione') and the more conventional melodramatics of the future ('Death in Venice'). In many senses, it's a film of two halves - the first half is Visconti in full-on neo-realist mode as he traces the journey of the Parondi family from a poor Southern village to the industrialised, more prosperous Milan in the North. The second half is infused with melodrama though, reflecting the director's interest in theatre and opera, as events take a more exaggerated and extravagant turn. Still, it's a fascinating balancing act from Visconti, and one can only suggest that he passes with flying colours in terms of keeping the film together.
The Parondi family, led by a widowed matriarch (Katina Paxinou), and four of her sons travel to Milan to join up with the oldest son Vincenzo (Spiros Facos), who is expected to take care of them until they're able to make their own way. However, they arrive during his engagement party to his fiancee (Claudia Cardinale in a small role), which causes a great degree of friction with her family. Ever proud, the mother leaves with her sons not before reminding Vincenzo of his responsibilities since his father died, and whilst he wants to take care of his family, he is naturally torn, and we sympathise with him for this. Thereafter, the family find life a struggle, and the optimism that was felt upon their arrival; their fascination in the shops, the lights, the city as a contrast to their village, now turns to sober realism. Work is hard to come by and the family share a small and cramped apartment. Surely this was not the future they expected?
Their fortunes take a turn for the worse with the arrival of Nadia (Annie Girardot), a prostitute both admired and desired by the almost saintly Rocco (Alain Delon) and the brutish Simone (Renato Salvatori). It's a simplistic polarisation in some ways, not especially subtle and not much complexity about characterisation, but it's necessary. Their infatuation with Nadia is what ultimately threatens to tear the family apart and causes tragedy in the long run. Simone, a promising boxer becomes something of a local success, encouraged by Nadia, but he is ultimately too reckless to make the grade at a higher level. Always borrowing money from Rocco, he abuses his trust to keep hold of Nadia, a girl of expensive habits. In one telling scene, he seduces Rocco's manager, symbolically caressing her expensive brooch; a sign perhaps of the desire for wealth and the good things in life. When Rocco starts seeing Nadia, Simone goes off the rails completely, lashing out at both her and his own brother. In one act of supreme jealousy and contempt, one of the most famous scenes in the film nonetheless, he forces himself on her in front of Rocco. This is the ultimate act of revenge, even more so knowing that Rocco is helpless to do anything to prevent it.
Ever the saint though, Rocco still tries to help his brother despite his hatred for him. He is aware of the poisoning effect Milan has had upon the family, confident that had they remained in their village, they would have all stayed together despite the poverty they were trapped by. But there is no helping Simone. His downfall coincides with Rocco's success, which includes fighting for Italy at the Olympic Games; an event that brings the entire neighbourhood together, including Vincenzo's fiancees family. This is the moment at which the entire family's dreams have come true, that they have succeeded in making lives for themselves. However one moment of recklessness by Simone jeopardises this.
Visconti's expansive epic raises issues about the North-South divide in a country that had been united for about a century at this point. Simone is harassed by members of the crowd during a boxing match for being Southern, and these prejudices seem to run throughout the film. Was there resentment towards migration to the North, leading to competition for jobs and so on in what was already a difficult economic climate? The rural-urban divide is shown by just how difficult a transition the family makes from one way of life to another. Whilst Rocco is undoubtedly the film's 'hero', you wouldn't say he achieves this. He dreams of returning one day to the village, the entire family intact and even he is compromised by Simone's recklessness. Instead, one of the younger brothers. Ciro, is perhaps the best example of this transition being made. He is the most pragmatic, the most self-assured, the most responsible - aware of the changing world and able to cope with it too. He gives hope for the future for the family.
Though his masterpiece 'The Leopard' was soon to follow, 'Rocco and his Brothers' doesn't fall far short of this, and remains a rare beast - a neo-realist epic. The lack of subtlety in the characterisations of the two main characters is perhaps the only flaw, as well as the disinterest in the lives and perspectives of the other siblings. On the other hand, this is the work of a film maker totally hitting his stride, and reflecting upon an Italy that was both economically and culturally divided with confidence and astuteness. 4.5/5