Monday, March 24, 2008

Bawl in the family: Rocco and his Brothers

There is pulsing through Rocco and his Brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli), Luchino Visconti’s celebrated 1960 epic drama, a towering force as wild, forbidding and fearsome as it is transfixing. That force is called family.

Based on the novel by Giovanni Testori, this story of five brothers and their newly widowed mother transplanted to Milan from the rural Italian South, at nearly 3 hours, moves, explodes and engages with tremendous energy. The film’s vitality emerges from the accumulation of several talents working harmoniously at the peak of their powers. Giuseppe Rotunno’s restless, roaming camerawork, especially in the protracted close-ups or spectacular exteriors, such as the massive street brawl or the cathedral-set lovers’ break-up; Mario Serandrei’s masterful editing, with sharp transitions that catch you off guard before hurling you into some new, unexpected scene, sweeping confidently across the tale’s broad chronology; Nino Rota’s jazzy, often detached but never glib music that makes menace weirdly seductive; the international cast of actors, deeply committed and nimble enough to shift convincingly from tender nuance to grand opera in a hastened breath: everyone involved contributes something substantial to the film’s overall power. But I think what truly makes all these elements gel, a unifying vision that we should probably attribute to Visconti, is an acute, mythical understanding of the fathomless potency of blood ties in determining the fate of the characters.

Upon the arrival of the Parondi family in the spectral, snow-covered Northern city, clashing loyalties are already wreaking havoc: a few words construed as disrespect launch an instant shouting match and mutual antipathy between the Parondis and the future in-laws of the eldest Parondi son Vincenzo (Spiros Forcás). Soon after, the charming, thuggish Simone (Renato Salvatore) takes up boxing, womanizing and petty theft seemingly all at once. After a stint in the military, Simone’s younger brother Rocco (Alain Delon) follows him into the ring and, in an act that will later spell disaster, takes up a quiet romance with a smart, beguiling prostitute named Nadia (the superlative –and sumptuously leggy– Annie Girardot) who was Simone’s girl of two years previous. As stray caustic elements spin into increasingly closer proximity, Rocco and his Brothers builds to its climax on waves of violence and toxic moral perdition, culminating at a scene of unbridled emotion, a well-calibrated frenzy of weeping and hollering that feels less like the indulgences of some fine actors than like an impotent purging, an attempt to redeem unforgivable crimes through the ecstasy of sheer, manic volume. It’s like something out of Wild Kingdom. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

Though Visconti was once heralded among the masters of cinema, in the 30 since his death his name has fell from the place it once held near the top of the heap. It seems safe to presume that a revival of Rocco and his Brothers will likely find a new audience with limited knowledge of its director’s career and reputation, which I’d argue is a blessing. To come to this film without prior knowledge of Visconti’s role as an affluent Marxist or founder of neo-realism is to come to it freed of a burden that can only hamper a more fluid, fresh reading of the film.

Case in point: after my own riveted viewing of Rocco and his Brothers I prepared for this piece by reading Bosley Crowther’s 1961 New York Times review. He writes: “there is in this strong and surging drama of an Italian peasant family's shattering fate in the face of the brutalizing forces of unfamiliar modern city life a kind of emotional fullness and revelation that one finds in the great tragedies of the Greeks.” By tracing a Leftist tradition from Steinbeck to Visconti, Crowther renders the Parondi clan as being above all victims of a modern capitalist-industrial urbanism –which strikes me as a hell of a stretch. Perhaps it’s my own baggage –my father is also of poor, un-educated, Mediterranean, hot-blooded and rather oppressively loud folk– but the root of the Parondis tragedy seems to reside all too clearly in cultural traditions that predate Crowther’s point of reference. The city and its corrupting elements play a crucial role, but nothing in the film strikes me as being more flamboyantly destructive than its titular fraternity of pathologically misogynists, lorded over, somewhat ironically, by a matriarch that will not suffer any threats to the singular sovereignty she inhabits in her family. In plain terms, these guys are serious mamma’s boys, and mamma is one formidable figure.

Unsurprisingly, the theme of the family as agent of disaster isn’t especially popular in movies, but when it arises in the hands of artists who know the territory, it can make for masterpieces. Rocco and his Brothers reminded me of the Godfather trilogy, with Rocco himself bearing a striking resemblance to Michael Corleone, the family’s saviour who becomes corrupted by the very poisons he tries to exorcize from his family. In that film, the judgment of the father replaces the clinging grasp of Visconti’s mother, but either way, these films thrill us with stories that come with a clear warning: beware the elders that close off the forging of your own paths in the name of family pride, because once ensnared, every time you try to get out, they pull you back in.

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