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‘Rocco and His Brothers’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 03, 1992

"Rocco and His Brothers," Luchino Visconti's recently restored 1960 film about the struggles of a poor southern Italian family to adjust to industrialized, big-city life, may not be a masterpiece, but it is, nonetheless, a watershed film -- turgid, overwrought, yet still profoundly affecting.

Its creator is a giant in Italian cinema, but also a man of immense contradictions. Born an aristocrat, he was a Fascist sympathizer turned ardent Marxist, a womanizer turned homosexual, a peasant naturalist turned effete melodramatist. After working as an assistant with Jean Renoir, he applied the French director's detailed, humanistic approach in the making of "Ossessione" (1942) and "La Terra Trema" (1948), which inspired such filmmakers as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, and opened the doors for the emergence of Italian neo-realism.

"Rocco," which was banned in Milan, where it is set, and cut by Italian censors because of its violence, is important precisely because it is a reflection of the contradictions within its creator. "Rocco," which uses realistic settings as a backdrop for its story, points not to the simplicity and naturalism of Visconti's earlier films, but ahead to his later work. It marks the point in the director's career at which neo-realism meets grand opera, where the humble and the everyday is overrun by grandiloquence and spectacle.

You could say that "Rocco" designates the moment at which Visconti's aesthetic compass wavered. Or it could be seen as the film in which the Marxist posturing of his youth was set aside for interests closer to his true self; that it marks the emergence of the real Visconti. In either case, it is the tension between the real and melodramatic that makes the film so rare and powerful. And what's lamentable is that these contradictory impulses would never again exist in such balance in his work.

The film sprawls over a period of three years with separate chapters for each of the five brothers. Only two of the brothers, Simone (Renato Salvatori) and Rocco (Alain Delon), emerge strongly from the generic family group. An unprincipled opportunist, Simone becomes a boxer and a minor local celebrity after winning his first few fights. One night he meets Nadia (Annie Girardot), a prostitute, and falls in love. But Nadia doesn't return his affections. Instead, as a result of a chance meeting in the garrison town where he is stationed with the army, she falls in love with the softhearted Rocco, creating a conflict between the brothers that ends in a violent confrontation in which, in one of the most remarkable scenes in movie history, Simone beats up Rocco and rapes Nadia right before his eyes.

Rocco cannot strike back at his brother because he feels guilty for not recognizing the depth of Simone's feelings, causing him to abandon Nadia, instructing her to return to his brother. What follows is a steady, ineluctable decline for all three parties in this triangle. And, yet, while Visconti sculpts these events in overblown emotional terms, they remain grounded in the reality of characters. Each character meets a tragic end, and while there is a facile assumption about the debasing influence of modern city life behind their disintegration, their demise, nevertheless, is still moving and resonant, particularly in the case of Simone and Nadia, who embrace their fates with a doomed fatalism.

The uncut version of this far from perfect but still classic work gives us an unusual opportunity to judge not only the film in itself, but to reassess the filmmaker's career as a whole. Certainly he was influential, not only to his contemporaries but to later film artists such as Coppola and Scorsese (who is listed as the presenter of this new version). But was he a great filmmaker or merely, as some have suggested, a director who gave a high art tone to tawdry, Hollywood-style potboilers? "Rocco" suggests that he was both -- a filmmaker of lurid genius.

"Rocco and His Brothers," in Italian with English subtitles, is unrated.

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