Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers: Poverty and Possibility, Heroism and Decadence in Italy

by Daniel Garrett

Rocco and His Brothers (1961)
Starring: Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori
Director: Luchino Visconti

Life is rarely what we expect—and in order to embrace strange experiences we may need new perspectives and forms of storytelling. In Rocco and His Brothers, made and shown in Italy in 1960 and released in American the next year, by director Luchino Visconti, we have a story that is in some ways very old—as old as the betrayal between the brothers Cain and Abel—but this is also a story of what can happen when one moves from country to city, into the modern world. What is modernity? Access and use of the most sophisticated knowledge and technology of one’s own time—and willingness to leave tradition behind in chase of the new: thus “moderns” are celebrated as heroic or condemned as decadent. Rocco and His Brothers is told in individual chapters devoted to each brother, a form that allows for intimate exploration of each and which together generate a large view. The film has the detail of photography, the layered richness of painting, and the resonant recognition of a roving, individual perception as it explores ambition, desire, law and crime, money and poverty, and violence.

The first scene begins with a look through the grille of a train station—the station itself signifies transition, modernity, and life lived among masses of people but the grille is like the bars of a jail cell. (Later a doomed woman character will say that life is a one-way street.) The southern Italian family—Rocco (Alain Delon), his brothers, and mother—arrive in Milan to be with Rocco’s elder brother Vincenzo (Spiros Focas), who moved there earlier. They first notice streetlights that make night like day—another aspect of modernity may be that it makes nature—the untransformed, the not man-made—less important. But there has been some confusion and the family’s move to Milan is not expected. The mother and her sons interrupt an engagement party the Milanese brother is having, and his fiancée’s mother says the family arrived like an earthquake. The move and familial responsibility it entails will make it difficult for construction worker Vincenzo to marry.
All the family’s belongings are put on a wagon as they look for a place to stay, and after they find a place they welcome a snow day as a rare chance for paid work. True poverty subjects them to season and chance. Rocco puts on his mother’s sweater for protection against the cold and is teased about this. We will see later that the young man Rocco has qualities thought maternal—he is sensitive, nurturing, self-sacrificing, qualities one brother, Ciro (Max Cartier), will call saintly and another, Simone (Renato Salvatori), will not see or respect at all, not expecting it in a male, even a brother. (Their mother, played by Katina Paxinou, is actually a loving, passionate, superstitious, ruthless woman.)

On Vincenzo’s way inside the building where his family lives, he meets Nadia (Annie Girardot), who has just been loudly called a whore and a bitch by someone she claims is her father. She will meet Vincenzo’s family and encourage the brothers to take up Vincenzo’s old sport, boxing—and when brother Simone represents Milan in a fight he is called a traitor to his region and a riot starts. (There’s a north/south conflict with the southerners considered poor, dumb, and lazy.) After Simone scores a knockout fight, Nadia waits for him and they begin an affair—for her it’s just sex (and money—she is a prostitute) but for him it’s love, an increasingly blind obsessive love.

Meanwhile Rocco works in a clothes cleaners shop and is called Sleeping Beauty for his inattentiveness. Simone borrows money from Rocco to give Nadia or provide her treats; and Nadia returns to Rocco a brooch Simone steals from Rocco’s boss. Rocco is asked by a boxing trainer to chaperone Simone, to provide the discipline Simone lacks. Vincenzo and his fiancée (Claudia Cardinale) marry after she is pregnant, Simone wins an important fight and the family can afford to move to a better neighborhood, and Rocco is drafted by the military. In the military, he’s told by his mother to send his money home as he doesn’t need it where he is. Rocco unexpectedly meets Nadia, just fresh out of jail, and they begin a friendship and a romance. She hasn’t seen his brother Simone for some time, and is disappointed by life, but when Rocco tells her to have faith “in everything,” including him, she begins to fall in love with him. When Simone is told about the relationship by male gossips, he rapes Nadia in front of Rocco, who sees the rape as deranged love—but love.

Rocco begins to fight his opponents with the anger he feels for his brother (and win), but he asks Nadia to go back to Simone, who himself has sex for money with a man affiliated with the boxing world after the two rough each other up a bit. The man later claims a large theft and Rocco has to commit to a 10-year boxing contract to repay the debt. With this contract, we see how poverty, debt, and emotion can together outbox dignity, intelligence, and will; and through Rocco’s attempt to redeem Simone’s apparent crime, he commits a crime against himself. After Nadia rejects Simone for a final time, she seems to anticipate and accept her possible murder at his hands but then after he stabs her she realizes she does not want to die. Too late. The police look for Simone. Rocco’s younger brother Ciro, an Alfa Romeo factory worker, says, “We’re our own enemies—we must pay for our own faults,” but Rocco still wants to protect Simone. Rocco, whose brother-love seems lawless and even mindless, says that he doesn’t respect man’s justice; and when he comforts Simone, the affection may be familial but its appearance—intense caresses (I seem to recall Rocco hugging Simone on a bed)—verges on the homosexual. Simone hides but is found.

(Death changes things: just as Rocco’s father’s death preceded the family’s move to Milan, Nadia’s murder by Simone means the family will not be the same.)

The film ends with the youngest brother Luca, a little boy, walking past public posters of Rocco, who has become a celebrated but lonely man, possibly a defeated man. Sometimes a man’s work or career can save his mind and spirit but not his physical life; sometimes it can save his physical life but not his mind and spirit, and Rocco’s physical life may have been saved but not his spirit. Will Luca be like heroic Rocco, decadent Simone, or like Luca’s more ordinary but decent brothers, Vincenzo and Ciro? What will Luca be true to, and what will become of him?

Rocco and His Brothers, through its dialog and plot, but also with its landscapes, atmosphere, and interiors, covers a great deal of ground and yet I wasn’t aware of any unnecessary scene. (The most melodramatic scene, the scene hardest to accept, was that of Rocco ending his relationship with Nadia and asking her to go back to Simone.) The film is over two-hours long but one doesn’t feel real-world time passing, only film-time in which months go by in minutes.

I first saw Rocco and His Brothers during a year in which I’d also seen in theaters ABC Africa, Blade 2, The Bourne Identity, Count of Monte Cristo, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, Enigma, The Fast Runner, 40 Days and 40 Nights, Gosford Park, Hart’s War, The Lady and the Duke, Les Destinees, Lovely and Amazing, Minority Report, Queen of the Damned, Sunshine State, Sweet Smell of Success, 13 Conversations about One Thing, Time Machine, and Y Tu Mama Tambien.Clearly not all were memorable—in fact, one rarely remembers even all of a film one likes; rather one recalls luminous images, articulate lines of dialog, moments of intense or honest emotion in an actor’s performance. I remember Terrence Howard’s military courtroom testimony in Hart’s War, with its mix of anger, love, and pride as he told how he and his friend’s ambitions and good intentions had been subverted by racism; Tom Cruise’s recoiling after blindly eating and drinking rotten food in Minority Report; the manners of the characters in Lady and the Duke, manners that look like style but are themselves love and respect; Wesley Snipes’ body being casually but viciously punctured in Blade 2; Josh Harnett flying over surreal hills of women’s breasts in 40 Days; the precocious intelligence, sensitivity, and wit of the boys inDangerous Lives; and a glitch in the otherwise fine Sunshine State when Angela Bassett seems to go from describing her dead baby first as a girl then as a boy.

What I remember about Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers is a sense of richness—a film about mostly poor people that somehow conveys the richness of life. The film presents ideas and emotions and even history, the past as it shapes particular people and a particular society. I have said nothing about the actors’ performances but that is because I accepted them not as actors but as people. How one family supports and exploits its members is shown—their connection to each other is strained, it breaks: the family is revealed as a primitive tribe, a complex but primitive tribe, part of a society that replicates (and inspires) the family’s impulses. Visconti, an aristocrat, treats these peasants and workers with a respect that is hard to imagine their equals in American film, especially those who are African-American or Latino, receiving even at this time: Rocco and his brothers are allowed moments of transcendence.

About the Reviewer: Daniel Garrett is a writer of journalism, fiction, poetry, and drama. He wrote about Spike Lee’s films for Black Film Review and Phati’tude, and Eric Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke for He has written about the work of a wide range of directors—including Woody Allen, Bergman, Bertolucci, Godard, Sokurov, and Ousmane Sembene—for the online magazine Offscreen. His commentary on Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog and other films appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader, and his consideration of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and its reception appeared on Cinetext.Philo. His work has appeared also in (or on) American Book Review, Anything That Moves, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist,, The Review of Contemporary Fiction,, and World Literature Today. Garrett admires the film criticism of James Agee, Rudolf Arnheim, Vincent Canby, Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, Elvis Mitchell, Jonathan Rosenbaum, A.O. Scott, Gene Seymour, John Simon, Alan Stone, and Armond White (among others). His commentary on Rocco and His Brothers previously appeared on the no-longer available film site.