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‘Rocco and His Brothers’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 03, 1992

They're right, those folks who say they don't make 'em like they used to. Luchino Visconti's "Rocco and His Brothers" reminds us only too clearly what special-effected, thrill-gluttonous affairs movies have become. The great movies -- from Hollywood to Europe -- used to be wines. Now they're diet sodas.

From the dusty, classic cellar comes the 1960 "Rocco," an Italian, black-and-white movie about a rural family's attempt to find a new life in Milan. Restored and recut to its original three hours, it's a richly textured drama, resoundingly alive with characters. It has a lasting bouquet, rather than a quick fizz, with painterly compositions, adroit camera movement, stylized choreography and stirring music. No, they don't make 'em like they used to.

Effete artiness it isn't. Beneath its stylish surface, "Rocco" is sheer melodrama, with repressed sexual urges, fraternal jealousy, familial anguish and hatred, rape and even murder. The movie was originally censored, in part because of a brutal stabbing late in the film, as well as what Milan city officials called "an inopportune resemblance to reality."

Widowed matriarch Rosaria Parondi comes to Milan, four grown sons in tow, to meet oldest scion Vincenzo. Impoverished by an agricultural depression back home, the family is seeking better things in the city. But the Parondis (including a young Alain Delon as middle brother Rocco) discover only a pitiless world of crime and hopelessness. Rosaria (Katina Paxinou) watches the steady fragmentation of her family, as Vincenzo, Rocco and their brothers follow their own unexpected -- in some cases grim -- courses. The movie is stirring for its indefinable, music-like quality. It's not so much what's going on that matters, it's how it's going on. The side details are the central essence. How else to explain the appeal of a scene in which the family (living in a basement slum) wakes to the sight of snow outside? The mother and the brothers are overjoyed. Composer Nino Rota's wonderful score floods the scene. They scramble to get dressed, in order to make quick money shoveling sidewalks. "God sent us the snow!" declares Rosaria. Things -- at that moment, at least -- are looking up.

The movie's divided into the equivalent of chapters, one for each brother. But their lives intertwine. The most passionate, melodramatic story involves Simone (Renato Salvatori), who is trying to make it as a boxer; Nadia (Annie Girardot), a prostitute he falls in love with; and Rocco, who tries futilely to keep the family together.

Simone's luck worsens. He falls out with Nadia. He gains weight. He loses fights. Like a cornered animal, he becomes increasingly desperate and brutal. When Rocco becomes romantically interested in Nadia, it has been two years since the boxer stopped seeing her. But, in this drama of Mediterranean passions, a gruesome clash is inevitable. Simone's fall from grace is a moral measurement of how far the family has fallen. The effect of his actions is shattering. Visconti, with masterful direction, makes this collective descent more than just a family saga. It's a living frieze full of anguished souls.

Copyright The Washington Post

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