Rocco and his brothers
Luchino Visconti (It 1960) Alain Delon, Renato Salvatore, Annie
Girardot, Katina Paxinou
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 16 June 2016 Ticket: £8:75
From the graphic impact of the opening titles, large white blocked out font on black which finally fades through to the great shed of Milan’s station, this is Visconti’s opera: playing out a charged melodrama against an epic backcloth that encompasses and contains the both the plot and state of mind of the protagonists.
Rocco has the veneer of a neo-realist movie but seeing past its surface the theme of the film is not so much social but psycho-sexual. The psycho-sexual theme is located and established within the context of an cultural matrix which gives cogency to the idea. The issues of social relations (though not that of migration) recede as the movie develops its real focus: the development of new forms of personal identity grounded in the experiential conditions of urban alienation.
Visconti’s narrative device of exploring the relationships between brothers calls to mind Dostoyevsky’s Karamazov. The way in which both Visconti’s film and Dostoyevsky’s novel render of the intensity of male relations, highlighting the the polarisation of the spiritual and the visceral, as between Alyosha and Dmitry, and Rocco and Simone. In Rocco and his brothers Visconti realises a scenario of emotional and sadistic savagery as individually Rocco and Simone strive to define who they are and come to terms with their destinies as migrants in a new theatre of life.
Rocco’s family have traded: the security of slavery to the land in the South for the insecurity of industrial life in the North; moved from a kind of primal state of innocence to a state of sin. Once they were figures in a landscape; now they are figures in a man made world that overshadows them. Once they had few desires, now they are overwhelmed by desires.
Visconti’s settings in Milan: the station shed, the tenement blocks, the factories, the Cathedral, the bars and boxing arena are architectonic stages for the playing out of the psychic saga of the Parondi family’s deterritorialisation. Visconti exploits the sets beyond the suggestive power of their presence. His camera tracks cranes swoops pans through the densities of the urban structures penetrating their resistance as the family, both as group and as individuals, are absorbed into their new environment. An arcing crane shot tracks the family’s arrival at their first tenement flat, glides over the exterior wall and then follows them into the interior of their new dwelling. The complexity and unexpected movement suggests something of the journey of the family itself; the admix of wonder and apprehension at the new trials they face as they are swallowed down into a new concrete world order.
Two of the brothers Ciro and Vincenzo are absorbed into the mechanicality of industrial Milan. They internalise the life of the worker trying to realise the capitalist dream, trading self and soul for wages, freedom for a new kind of servitude, adopting the gestures and motions of work. But Visconti’s focus is on Rocco and Simone who dance to another urban rhythm: the fast track. To short circuit the proletarian fate, you take what you want using violence. The violence that is a property of the body. In the USA the protagonists would be gangsters; in ‘Rocco’ the protagonists take up boxing.
Both Rocco and Simone emerge in Visconti’s movie as new kinds of homoerotic beings. Men defining their sexuality in an environment where the rules and roles have changed. The brothers develop as two sides of the coin of male sexuality. Simone’s drive and lust released by success as a boxer overwhelm him; his demand is to possess women, fuck them, impose his will on life. He is the beast who smashes everything that gets in the way of his desire, and as he falls into a spiral of failure and pathetic decrepitude only the delusion of being a big man keeps him alive. Simone’s response, the exageration of the male qualities becomes a parody of heterosexual behaviour, a leaden barren path to death of body and soul.
Rocco takes a different path. Visconti marks his film with a number of powerful close up’s of his main characters. The most potent of these affect images spliced into the film are those of Alain Delon who plays Rocco. The close-up’s of Rocco’s are visually stunning. They are moments of stillness that immediately absorb the viewer into a face that resonates with a pure beauty, a suggestion of a more diffuse male sexuality, an androgynously forming identity, a psyche alert to the possibilities of sensualities outside the bounds traditional relationships. It is in his use of these defining close-ups as much as in the action that Visconti shapes Rocco’s development. Rocco is the other, the saint like figure who though immersed in a twisted world wants to try and help, even if he is confused, doesn’t know how to and his actions contradictory and are in vain. Rocco fuses both male and female identity in both his actions and body.
It is this clash between Simone’s assertion of an identity built on purely male attributes, and Rocco’s movement towards an androgyny, that in opposition legitimises the extreme episodes of sadistic sexual violence that are resolving mechanisms in the film, allowing us to see clearly what is happening. Simone’s vicious rape of Nadia and beating of Rocco are staged as grand opera: we see small figures against large backcloths. It defines and clarifies the emotional psychic space between the two brothers, and throws into terrifying relief the extent to which the pure female, in the person of Nadia, has become simply a pawn in a game she cannot control. A game which is played out to the bitter end in the penultimate section of the film where a demented Simone, unable to live with himself, tracks Nadia down and in his final aria, kills her with a knife. She becomes a sacrificial offering to Simone’s failed masculinity.
Visconti’s movie pulls together significant themes relating to male relationships and male psychic adjustment. Visconti holds them together using masterfully sure and expressive film techniques. Viewing Rocco, I felt that Scorsese and Coppola had carefully studied Visconti’s film, for there are similar themes and techniques replicated by them. Their settings of course are also Italian, and Scorsese in particular in Goodfellas captures this same fetid crucible of intense fraternal male relationships that characterise his New York gangsters. The same sweated bodies in undershirts play out relations in both movies. And in Raging Bull, the stunning cinematography that characterises the fight sequences can be seen in embryonic form in Rocco. In relation to the Godfather, Coppola’s magnificent ‘family’ epic is famous for its sequence that intercuts the Christening in the church with the murders of the New York dons. This sequence is very similar in idea Visconti’s intercutting of Simone killing Nadia with his knife with the joyous event of the Parondi family celebrating Rocco’s victory. Rocco and his brothers has been a pivotal significant film at many levels.
Adrin Neatrour email@example.com