Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Rocco and His Brothers

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Rocco and His Brothers


Among other things, Rocco and His Brothers is the story of a face. Not the face you see above, which a woman’s decorated hand is reaching to caress. That face belongs to Spiro Focas, cast as Vincenzo Parondi. Vincenzo’s visage, along with the rest of him, has already settled into lifelong complacency when the rest of the Parondis show up in Milan to pester their urban relation for support. (Incidentally, the owner of those feminine fingers – Nadia, played by Annie Girardot, will see her own expression shift from hearty cynicism to fragile vulnerability through passionate romanticism, ragged humiliation, coarse self-hatred, and back to the beginning again). Nor is it the face of Alain Delon (playing Rocco himself), which usually broadcasts arrogant assurance but here displays a touching and sweet naivete, broken up by intense disappointment and flickers of hatred (though traces of compassion never leave his brooding eyes or bashful smile). And it isn’t even the memorable face of Katina Paxinou, the Greek actress who portrays Rosaria, the fiery Sicilian mama of the titular brood, I have in mind.



No, the face that dominates and haunts Luchino Visconti's 1960 masterpiece, the face which - despite all the various transformations and wild emotional swings and dips - undergoes the most severe change from beginning to end, belongs to the character Simone Parondi (Renato Salvatori). When the film opens, he seems to be the comedian of the fraternal clan, his fresh face bright and open as he enters the city. He oversleeps when the family leaps out of bed one early, snowy morning, eager to work - already we see's he's lazy and selfish, but his sleepy resistance to the work ethic embraced by his brothers is played for laughs. Above all, Simone is always grinning - he grins when he watches Vincenzo fight with his fiancee's (Claudia Cardinale's) family, he grins when the brothers finally bundle up and leave their hovel to go shovel snow, and he grins when Vincenzo brings a good-looking tramp (Nadia in her "hearty cynicism" phase) into the family home.

And then he keeps grinning when he takes Nadia out, ignoring her protestations that she's just a hooker and that she can't offer him anything serious. His grin is accompanied by a wink to his brother when a prowling fight promoter visits the local gym's showers, and rather unsubtly propositions the naked young boxer-in-trainer with the promise of a champ's career hanging in the air. The grin grows wiley when it's used to flirt with Rocco's female co-workers and to seduce his middle-aged boss, all while stealing clothing and jewelry for Nadia. When this is no longer enough to keep Nadia by his side - indeed, when Simone's theft and dishonesty drive her away - the young man's grin finally evaporates altogether, and is replaced by a brooding scowl. When a cracked smile creeps across Simone's face from time to time, it's either a sheepish attempt to make up for increasingly devastating mistakes or a sinister, malicious grin - a sneer which mocks not only his victims (often the very brothers who were his best friends) but his own former good cheer.

The movie is divided up into five sections, one for each brother - not only Vincenzo, Simone, and Rocco, but younger brothers Ciro (Max Cariter) and Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi). Ciro is not as charismatic as Simone or Rocco, but his square solemnity provides the film its social conscience. Luca, the only brother who is still a child (despite his siblings' childlike behavior), is the observer, the innocent who must grapple with the incomprehensible betrayal and suffering he helplessly witnesses. Visconti and his co-writers give each character his (or her) due: in one scene, Rosaria and Nadia scream at each other, yet we can fully understand where each woman is coming from. (The director scrupulously allows us to sympathize with both sides of every argument in the movie, at least until Simone becomes irredeemable - although even then we can see the flickers of shame and wounded pride and confusion pass over his expression, even if we can no longer sympathize with his actions).

Yet even in the chapters named for a different brother, it is clearly the conflict between Rocco and Simone which dominates, even while simmering beneath the surface. Rocco tries to bottle up his rage stemming from Simone's various cruelties and betrayals; he's always trying to patch things up and return relationships to the way they "used to be" in the old land. (Visconti constantly reminds us that Sicily was not an Eden, and that at any rate the relative innocence of life in the South is, pardon the expression, gone with the wind.) Meanwhile, Simone rejects or takes advantage of every overture from Rocco, in a constant orgy of self-destruction and familial sabotage. Rocco continues to forgive, and Simone continues to reject, until the film reaches its tragic conclusion.

While the style is operatic - this may be the crucial film in Visconti's transformation from neorealist chronicler of the underclass to operatic conductor of larger-than-life melodramas - its portrait of family strife is recognizable to anyone who's ever suffered through the frustrations of dealing with ungrateful and difficult flesh and blood. The sense of immense turmoil, coupled with an unshakable loyalty and responsibility, comes to a head in one of the most emotionally violent finales in the history of cinema, in which all the festering boils burst with the furious rage of Ciro, the physical collapse of Simone as he breaks into painful and pathetic sobs, the loud and hysterical weeping of Rocco and Rosaria - if one gives in to the raw power of this over-the-top moment, it is almost impossible not to feel both moved and overwhelmed.

The film, with its sensibility mixing brutal violence and thick familial loyalties, must have been a tremendous influence on the Godfather films - particularly the Fredo-Michael relationship in Part II and the silent scream at the end of Part III. And the name which appears at the beginning of this print - Martin Scorsese's (he re-presented the film in its three-hour version in 1992) - cannot be overlooked. The gritty masculine repartee of Mean Streets and Raging Bull; the fight scenes of that latter film - not just those inside the ring, but those outside, between brothers; the hero's discomfort with a rape victim in Scorsese's debut Who's That Knocking at My Door? - begun just a few years after Rocco premiered - all can be traced to Visconti's classic.

Of course, while the film looks forward, it also belongs with that pantheon I laid out in my previous review, of The Leopard: movies which chronicle Italy's move from the familiar world of the past to the confusing and destructive modern society of the postwar era. Rocco and His Brothers does so through that central social and emotional unit, the family, and as such, it offers one of the most ringing and penetrating portrayals of dissolution, collapse, and change. And that entire process comes to fruition in the end, when the door opens and Simone's face reappears before us - broken, addled, sick, sorrowful, old (he's aged about two decades in several years), and irredeemable, lost for all time. Indeed, it is the story of a face, and the man - and the family - behind it. While it's not a happy story, it is certainly a great one.

This review was originally published at the Boston Examiner. Comments appeared on Wonders in the Dark, where the piece was linked in the summer of 2009.

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