Most of Luchino Visconti’s filmography consists of novel adaptations, often from major figures of European literature, giving his work the air of a hefty, serious, literary density that few filmmakers can match. Rocco & His Brothers is one of his few films not adapted from a novel (though it is inspired by a chapter in a novel by Giovanni Testori), yet it is one of his most complex and dense works, bathing in novelistic detail and melodrama over almost three hours.
It also represents something of the last burning embers of Italian Neorealism: Visconti stated in interviews that one of the primary inspirations for Rocco and His Brothers was Giovanni Verga’s I Malavoglia, the same text that inspired his second feature film, The Earth Trembles (1948), easily one of the most staunchly ‘neorealistic’ films produced during that brief but ever so crucial movement after the Second World War.
Although the movement died down in the early 50s, its influence on cinema since has been huge. Visconti may have been one of its earliest practitioners—his first film, Obsession (1943) is frequently cited as the first film of the movement—but he was also one of the first to move onto other modes. Rocco represents the closest he ever returned to Neorealism, but here he is with the added experience of almost 20 years as a filmmaker. No surprise then that it remains a stone-cold masterpiece.
The Rocco of the title is played by Alain Delon, on the cusp of his fame. He is the middle child of a family of five brothers who, along with their mother, relocate from Southern Italy to the urban metropolis of Milan, like so many others of their ilk during this time.
The divide between the thriving, economically rich, and cosmopolitan North of Italy versus the deprived, arid, and underdeveloped South has long been a concern for Italian cinema, arguably kick-started with the aforementioned The Earth Trembles. Visconti would return to the subject further in his work, particularly in The Leopard (1963), and his former assistant director, Francesco Rosi, would become a famed director in his own right, making his name with a series of films about the North-South divide. Here in Rocco, Visconti finds himself concerned with the aspect of assimilation. Many Southerners emigrated to the North and instead of prosperity found poverty, hard labour, and xenophobia. So it is for Rocco’s family. The film’s timescale takes place over a number of years however, and Visconti takes his time with familial detail, explaining how they gradually come to assimilate into the Milanese milieu, aided by the successful boxing exploits of Rocco and his older but more wayward brother Simone (Renato Salvatori).
Amongst this backdrop, Visconti sets up a film of simmering melodrama, pitting Rocco and Simone against each other as they fight for the attentions of Nadia (Annie Girardot). The film makes it clear, in no uncertain terms, that she is a prostitute, a fact that enraged censors in Italy at the time. There are five episodes, each named after one of the brothers and going in descending order by age, with each episode broadly telling the story from the point-of-view of one particular sibling. Through this device, Visconti creates a film that is initially about the past, about the history of the North-South divide and the family’s initial problems with assimilation; then changes it into one about the present, as the rift between Rocco and Simone deepens and affects the lives of everyone around them; then finally about the future, as the youngest sibling learns to feel the weight of his family’s story on his back.
Truth be told, Visconti at his best is a director of such novelistic depth and intelligence that it is difficult to do justice to his work without writing a book (Geoffrey Nowell-Smith has a very good one, it has to be said). The characters in his films are so strongly rooted in their locations—the fishermen and the sea in The Earth Trembles, the Sicilian aristocracy and the Sicilian countryside in The Leopard, the two doomed lovers and the wide open plains of the North in Obsession—and Rocco’s grounding of urban Milan is critical here too. Visconti’s cinema embodies detail and specificity, luxuriating in character and using that as a springboard for storytelling, rather than forcing characters into unnatural stories. In few other films has he ever been as complete and as engaging and as full-bodied as in Rocco and His Brothers.