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Rocco and His Brothers 
Written by: on September 12th, 2006
Theatrical Release Dates: August 1960 (Venice Film Festival); 6 September 1960, Italy; (New York premiere: 26 June 1961)
Director: Luchino Visconti
Cast: Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, Claudia Cardinale, Katina Paxinou, Spiros Focas, Max Cartier, Corrado Pani

DVD release dates: 22 April 2002 (UK); 30 October 2001 (US)
Approximate running time: Originally 175mins; American commercial release cut to 149mins.
Aspect ratios: 16:9 Widescreen (UK); 1.66:1 (US)
Rating: 15 (UK); Not rated (US)
Sound: Dolby Digital
DVD release: C’est La Vie (UK); Image Entertainment (US)
Region coding: R2 PAL (UK); R1 NTSC (US)
Retail Price: £9.97 (UK); $26.99 (US)

Audiences at the Venice Film Festival in 1960 were impressed, and stunned, by the emotional charge of this film which did not win but was regarded as “the moral winner”. But Italian politicians, ministers, were disgusted by the violent scenes. It has been claimed that the politicians influenced the Jury.

From Italy’s most controversial director, Rocco and His Brothers is a nightmarish and painful vision of cultural confrontations and economic strife. A poor family from the South – a mother, Rosaria, and her five sons, Rocco, Simone, Vincenzo, Luca and Ciro – travel to the rich and industrially developed Northern city of Milan in search for a better life, but instead they are beset of violent misfortune. Life in the big city is tough and the family is struggling economically with all five brothers in part-time simple jobs that do not pay very well. Simone (Salvatori) eventually sees a potentially golden career as a boxer after his talent for the sport is discovered by a boxing manager at a club. Now there is an opportunity for Simone to make some good money that he could bring home to the family household. But happiness is only temporary. Nadia (Girardot), a prostitute, becomes Simone’s lover, but Nadia does not take their relationship as seriously as Simone does. For her, Simone is just one of many other men in her dodgy reality. The tension within the family grows when Nadia falls in love with Rocco (Delon), one of the other brothers. Of profound jealousy and fury, Simone rapes Nadia and inflicts a harrowing beating on his brother who refuses to defend himself.   

Visconti was occasionally questioned about the destructive influence of women on men in his films. Indeed, in virtually all his films there are female characters in key roles who seem to ignite a deterioration of male behaviour, or alternatively, female beauties tend to expose the weaknesses of men. Visconti never liked this kind of questions and rejected them constantly.

Visconti blends the styles of harsh neo-realism with the grandiose operatic strokes of tragic melodrama, resulting in the most violent and the most painfully realistic film he would ever make. Even if the physical violence and abuse in the hypnotic The Damned (1969) is strong and relentless, it feels here even more straight in the face and the guts. Nadia the prostitute is in the centre of two very violent scenes, shocking for their realism: In the rape scene we see Nadia surrounded by a gang of men, a terrified figure in the misty night who screams in vain for help. In the next scene her clothes are ripped from her body and she is raped, in the mud on the ground, by Simone. What follows is silence. Cries. Nadia leaving, her naked body stained with mud. The factor that determines the pain of the viewer is the accumulated length of the set of these sequences. The time span feels like an eternity, feels like a permanent nightmare that will never stop.

In the aftermath of the rape Simone turns into a loner, framed from both his family and the society. He does not take care of himself properly and his fitness deteriorates to a level far below that of the promising boxer he once was. Though he still loves Nadia and wants her back. He tracks her down and tries to win her heart back, but Nadia hates him for what he did to her and she insults him. The following scene in which Simone stabs Nadia to death is a famous scene of aesthetic violence, of cinematic beauty, despite its harrowing content: Visconti’s camera is aligned with the two actors with Nadia partly hidden behind Simone’s dark silhouette. When the inescapable killer approaches her she raises her arms in perpendicular angles to her body – in the shot footage it looks like the bodies of the killer and the victim form a cross together. And it has been argued that the stabbing moment itself – in its slowness – seems to savour as an act of love. The original still of this famous scene is at the Film Stills Archives at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.

Rocco and His Brothers is a milestone in Italian political cinema and a truly gripping story about a family’s destiny. It is one of Visconti’s best films that every fan of art house cinema must see. Highly recommended.

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