Rocco and his Brothers is a sociological examination of what happens to a rural, southern Italian family when they move to the industrial north that ultimately rejects sociological and economic explanations for human behavior in favor of the idea that character is destiny. In what’s widely considered to be one of cinema’s greatest films, Luchino Visconti — who is widely credited with having invented the Italian neorealism with Ossessione in 1943 — looks forward to the operatic melodrama of his “German Trilogy.” He also lays the groundwork for American films like The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, and Scarface.
Italy, like the United States, has a rich, industrial north, and a poor agrarian south. Similar to how blacks came north in the 1940s and 1950s to work in the auto-industry in Detroit, the postwar economic boom in Milan attracted poor farmers from Sicily, Calabria, Abruzzo, and in the case of Rocco Parondi and his brothers, from Basilicata, the arch of the Italian boot. Rocco and His Brothers opens in “Stazione Centrale,” a grand edifice similar to Grand Central or old Penn Station in New York. We meet Rosaria Parondi, the family matriarch, Rocco, Simone, and their younger brothers Cira and Luca. They are going to meet Vincenzo, the eldest, who has come to Milan ahead of them. As the great metropolis unfolds around them, as they stare out of the windows of the bus as it makes its way through the brightly lit city center, we realize they have never seen this kind of traffic, wealth, or bright, artificial light. “It’s like daytime at night,” Simone will say later.
A more careful observer will also realize that Visconti has pulled a fast one. These aren’t the kind of non-actors usually cast in neorealist films, but movie stars. Except for Katina Paxinou, who plays Rosaria and who looks very much like an authentic southern European peasant, the Parondis look like a family of male models. Rocco, a very young Alain Delon, is ethereal and angelic, a vision of boyish innocence. Simone, Renato Salvatori, is forceful and masculine, a Mediterranean Brando. When they finally get to Vincenzo’s apartment, they find Vincenzo celebrating his engagement to Ginetta, played by a very young Claudia Cardinale. By drawing up a standard neorealist frame, poor family from the country cracks up in a big city in the industrial north, Visconti sets up the expectation that the key to the plot’s resolution will depend on economic and historical forces beyond the control of the individual. But by casting good looking professional actors as poor southern Italians, he blows up the neorealist conventions from the inside. It’s not poverty that destroys Simone and leaves Rocco trapped in a career that he hates, Visconti says. On the contrary, the freedom and relative prosperity in Milan allows allows the two men to become themselves in a way that could not have happened back in Basilicata. Simone becomes a rapist and a murderer because, deep down inside, he’s genuinely rotten. Rocco becomes, in essence, an indentured servant to a corrupt boxing promoter because he never wanted to be free in the first place.
But it’s Annie Girardot, a their neighbor, a prostitute who becomes involved with, first, Simone, then Rocco who gives Rocco and His Brothers its heart and soul. Giradot, who 40 years later would play Isabelle Huppert’s domineering mother in The Piano Teacher, turns in one of the great performances in cinematic history. From her pursuit of Rocco, to her terror when she’s raped and later murdered by Simone, from her desire for upward mobility to her essential honesty, from her emotional warmth and vulnerability to the hatred and rage she expresses over Simone’s brutality and Rocco’s passive aggressive betrayal, she expresses just about every emotion a woman seems capable of expressing. She’s also almost certainly the stand in for Visconti himself, her sexual obsession with Alain Delon the conduit through which a gay man in 1960 could channel his lust for a young Adonis. Not far behind her performance is Renato Salvatori as Simone. Even though Simone is an irredeemably loathsome cancer who snuffs out the life of a beautiful, vital young woman and sets his mother and brothers on the road to their eventual destruction, we can’t help but pity him. If Visconti is telling us that character is destiny, Simone’s destiny is the way he has no character, no self, no will, no morals, no individuality. He is a passive receptacle who becomes, in effect, the embodiment of the malevolent forces of industrial capitalism, the lumpenprole who falls out of the working class and preys on the working class. While I can imagine Marlon Brando in his Streetcar days playing Simone Parondi, I cannot imagine him so effectively expressing the emptiness of his character, the hollow, gaping hole that opens up inside a man too weak to hold himself together when given the freedom to live up, or down to his true self.
Rocco and His Brothers is occasionally compared to John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath, but all the comparison really does is highlight Ford’s essential optimism. Rosario Parondi is no Ma Joad. She doesn’t keep her family together so much as keep herself together as it falls apart around her. If Ma Joad was open minded and expansive, Rosario Parondi is small minded and rigid, too wrapped up inside the protective shell of her southern conservatism ever to be of much use to anybody. But if Rocco and His Brother is not The Grapes of Wrath it’s not Visconti’s later film The Damned either The Damned was an enjoyable movie, but only because we didn’t care about any of them characters. We hate Visconti’s ruling class family of Nazis every bit as much as he does and enjoy every moment of their destruction. The more creatively sadistic he gets, the more we cheer him on. Rocco and His Brothers is gut wrenching. We care about the people we see tortured on screen. We identify with them. We feel their defeat. I genuinely wanted to see Alain Delon’s Rocco and Annie Giroud’s Nadia get married and live happily ever after. That their defeat is due partly to their character, to their own lack of will, is a much more eloquent protest against capitalism than it would have been had it been simple poverty. “We come from the land of the olive tree, the moon, and the rainbow,” Rocco says, dreaming of his hometown in the south. None of them will ever see it again. It’s the empty fantasy of beaten, uprooted people.