Monday, November 29, 2010

Rocco and His Brothers, un film di Luchino Visconti

Just take a look at this poster, the original Italian version.  That image says one of two things (it could say more, but let's say two for this review): it's about a man and a woman who are being blinded by the yellow grain of the fields in, uh, Italy.  Or, it's an Italian opera with BIG emotions and BIG characters, both emotionally and physically, mostly emotionally.  If it's Luchino Visconti, who made a movie in the 1950's (Senso) that was all but an opera, and The Leopard, which makes its marks in operatic- big grandiose movements with lavish sets and costumes and extras and music and Nino Rota- I'd say it's the latter.  And Rocco and His Brothers has it all as a Visconti movie.

As it is you can take it or leave it; some will be turned off of such large emotional strokes dramatically.  At first I thought it was just melodrama, but it really goes much farther than that.  Visconti is unique among Italian directors to be able to fuse, particularly in this film, an eye and ear for a neo-realist (improv situations, depicting the lives of lower class people just trying to make it) and of someone who has staged Carmen a few dozen times on stage.  He's the director who made La Terra Trema in 1947 and established himself as one of the Neo-Realist big-guns along with Rossellini and DeSica, but his career went a different path than them, and his films are primarily concerned with characters in super-high-stakes situations, betrayals, love and lust lifted up and broken, and life and death things set against society.

Rocco and His Brothers has both of that.  It's the story of a family, the Parondi's, who move from the south to the north of Italy (quite significant, as they move as they were in dire straits and hope to find some better pastures in Milan).  There are five brothers, one of whom is already living in the city (Vincenzo) and is a boxer.  The other big-male brothers- Rocco, Simone and Ciro, end up boxing at one time or another as well, and becomes one of the big points in the plot of the movie (though, as with one of the films that most influenced it and its director, Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, boxing is the backdrop but not the main thing really).  The brothers, guided by their very loving if very Italian mother Rosaria (i.e BIG emotions, BIG everything really), try and make it in their little world by work, and then find that life catches up with them.  Specifically, Simone, who meets an attractive young woman, Nadia, who raises the ire of the mother upon first site but not anyone else.  At first really.

The movie presents this story with a straightforward narrative line- that the brothers work at their jobs, boxing or at a dry cleaners or whatever and then meet their respective loves (one of them meets the radiant Claudia Cardinale, used only so much as to notice her among the others)- but it's in an epic scope.  If this were a book it might be 800 pages long and weigh about five pounds.  That would give enough time to let descriptions of characters and their emotional stakes in one another and how intense things get when relationships turn dark in the second half of the film.  Indeed Visconti plays upon his epic scope by the halfway point is easy to tell as Rocco goes off to do his army service duty and comes back a year later.

What's the big conflict?  One of the most elemental things (again, the connection to Raging Bull, though Mean Streets will come up too) as two men who are quite different- one is very loving, almost or trying to be saint-like in forgiving and helping out with his brother's transgressions (Rocco), and the other a guy who has a lot of pride, becomes a big-time boxer, but then loses his stamina and becomes a joke among most other people in the town (Simone)- and in the middle is the woman who has a nice but half-hearted affair with Simone, but falls in love with Rocco.

Ah, jealousy, envy, such evil monsters they can be for the wrong bastard, and Simone is one of them.  In one of the most staggering scenes ever put to film by an Italian (and for its time, maybe even now, quite violent), Simone confronts Rocco about his very human connection to Nadia when he sees it with his own eyes.  It's a bloody fight in a very dingy part of town, almost a junkyard, and at night.  The fight becomes much more graphic as Simone tries to "reclaim" Nadia as his own by abuse and rape in front of Rocco's eyes, and it's a brawl that is brutal, if only in the dramatic weight the actors carry.

There are other stories going on in Rocco and His Brothers, such as issues with Simone and money (this becomes a big story direction in the better part of the second half of the film), and how the mother figures into it and then even near the end what role the youngest brother, the little boy, Luca, will play into things with whether the family may ever go back to their roots in Sicily.  There's even a slight and somewhat underdeveloped plotline for Ciro.  But it's arguably the three big characters, this love triangle that is sordid and loaded with rage and mistrust and psychological head-games with the extremes of the brother who cares too much and the brother who could give less than a shit, that makes up the power of Rocco and His Brothers.  Some of the dialog is dated, and a few moments between brothers and their mutual attractor Nadia are written with such a heavy hand that it could dangerously veer into a Soap Opera... come to think of it, describing it as a Soap Opera and describing it as Operatic, what could be the difference there?  Maybe a difference in camera style, at least, or the depth to the performances.

Ultimately what's impressive is how Visconti is able to bring everything together and make things so exhilarating but natural at the same time.  This film came out the same year as La Dolce Vita and L'Avventura, and while those films created their own buzzes, no less important in history and unto a film itself is Visconti's effort, only with less of a impress-aspiring-film-buffs-everywhere reputation.  Its strengths are not in any particular visual dynamic like a Fellini or Antonioni, though Giuseppe Rotuno's cinematography, with great attention to the large scope and then conversely the smaller spaces like the Parondi's very cramped living space when they're first in Milan (and close-ups, Good Lord), is nothing to scoff at either.  It's in its attention to just pure drama, sibling rivalry that is so loud and passionate that when things are happy it seems like things could soar in the air, and the on a dime (or, at one crucial and unforgettable moment, cutting back and forth) wholly tragic and uncompromisingly bleak in its outlook.

Good performances help things along, like Alain Delon's quietly riveting turn as Rocco, or Nadia, who mostly steals all of her scenes who, as played with fierce energy, passion, sensuality, excitement, and dimensions of hate and love by Annie Giardot, is like a hurricane.  A little trickier to peg is Renato Salvatori, whose performance is a slow burner and only gets good once the drama really picks up in the story (until then he's mostly a two-dimensional character).  Also impressive is the actress playing the mother, who has to play things biggest of all but make things seem realistic to a degree without getting maudlin.  But more than any one performance the musical score by Nino Rota keeps the tempo and harrowing spectacle of scenes in check.  When a scene needs that sadness, it gets there, and when it needs to be a little more happy (i.e. the snow-shoveling scene) it gets that too.  It's one of his best scores in the same attention to detail that the director gives the story, accentuating what needs to be done and making smaller moments sparkle as well.

It's not entirely an easy film to love, depending mostly on who you are or what your tastes are in Italian or just general movies.  I should reiterate that it doesn't hold up over time quite as well as the counterparts of 1960 that I mentioned, sometimes just in a general attitude towards women (there's one scene in particular with a female clothing store owner and Simone that spirals out of control in a "hot" way that is just totally ridiculous today).  Yet at its core its a story of family strife and what one will do for another even in the harshest circumstances.

It's clear to see that Scorsese wouldn't have two of his most memorable films (each with characters that are hard to take most times and filled with animalistic energies played by De Niro), but this is not the reason, or the only one anyway, to see the movie.  Visconti's canvas is large and impressive, and at the same time dealing with characters that can touch us without being set in real period settings and decorum.  Its concerns are more common than one might think to realize until its well over, and whether it's scenes in the ring with boxing (crudely shot but still amazing) or in a bedroom, Rocco and His Brothers hits a nerve with its depiction, mostly honestly, of life in a city for a family splintered with personalities.

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