The gifted Italian director Francesco Rosi was inspired to an exalted labor of love by the source material of his last movie, "Eboli," an adaptation of "Christ Stopped at Eboli," Carlo Levi's great memoir about a year spent in political exile in a remote, impoverished southern Italian village in the '30s. Rosi's new picture, "Three Brothers," now at the K-B Cerberus and Outer Circle, is haunted by its profoundly stirring, elegiac predecessor--in some ways that are effective and in others that prove unfortunate.
The landscape and architecture of the principal setting in "Three Brothers," a rural village in the province of Apulia, recall "Eboli." However, the story takes place in a contemporary Italy, so the weathered, timeless feel of the village is contradicted by random signs of modernity and materials progress, like the television in the village bar that keeps the clientele posted on new of the outside world, especially new of continued violence and terrorism in cities of the north.
At one point the men in the bar get an opportunity to share their alarm at that telegenic morbidity with a public figure who could be personally threatened by criminal violence: Philippe Noiret as Raffaele Giuranna, a native son who has returned briefly to attend the funeral of his mother but faces an uncertain future when he resumes duties as a Roman judge scheduled to preside at the trial of terrorists accused of assassinating one of his colleagues. While the television transmits images of urban turmoil into a setting still dominated by pastoral rhythms and social customs, Noiret and two younger brothers--Vittorio Mezzogiorno as Rocco, a teacher at a boys' reformatory in Naples, and Michele Placido as Nicola, and industrial worker residing in Turin--return home preoccupied with the personal or professional crises smoldering back in their city habitats.
Their aged father, Donato, beautifully embodied by the French character actor Charles Vanel, who will soon be 90, is also preoccupied, but his reveries evoke the wife he's lost and reach into a past full of vividly tender memories. The scenario devised by Rosi and co-writer Tonino Guerra envisions a kind of national epic of emotional reconciliation based on the contrasting reveries of the peasant patriarch Donato and his three urbanized sons when reunited in mourning. It's an ambitious and precariously schematic attempt to balance the filmmakers' diagnosis of the state of the union seriously divided and wounded but still salvageable and undoubtedly worth saving--on the framework of one man's family.
The healing impetus behind this top-heavy allegorical conception seems so heartfelt and salutary that "Three Brothers" moves you even as you regret its equally obvious dramatic limitations. Moreover, Rosi and his magnificent cinematographer, Pasqualino de Santis, have refined the luminously revealing pictorial style they brought to the reproduction and distillation of Levi's book. Like "Eboli," "Three Brothers" imposes itself pictorially in a curiously majestic way. The compositions seem at once expansive and powerfully concentrated and the feeling of spaciousness combined with something intensely watchful and expectant produces an eerie perceptual illusion. It's as if the camera were always hovering on the brink of elemental, eternal revelations.
And there are scenes in "Three Brothers" that take your breath away because they appear to be touched by eternity, especially the episodes dealing with the reveries of old Donato or the explorations of his little granddaughter Marta, Nicola's daughter. Representing the early end of the life cycle, Marta accompanies her father to the village and "discovers" the farm for herself and us.
If "Three Brothers" fails to add up as powerfully as "Eboli" I don't think it's because the viewpoint now shifts frequently from character to character and from waking reality to dream states. This complicated structure tends to scatter the effects, of course, but the problem is not so much the mosaic approach itself as the failure of Rosi and Guerra to fill it in adequately in dramatic terms.
I suspect that the fundamental strength of "Eboli" was the wealth of incident and detail provided by Levi's book. Dependent on the inventions of Rosi and his collaborators, "Three Brothers" seems thinly contrived in the last analysis. The rich pictorial sensibility of "Eboli" carries over impressively into the new film, but now it looks a bit too rich and pretentious for the underourished content.