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Arriving at the end of the neorealism movement in Italian cinema, Rocco and His Brothers (1960) was Luchino Visconti's most ambitious production to date and a personal favorite among his many films. Recounting the tale of a widow, Rosaria Parondi (Katina Paxinou), and her five sons - Rocco (Alain Delon), Simone (Renato Salvatori), Ciro (Max Cartier), Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi) and Vincenzo (Spiros Focas), Visconti paints a sprawling canvas that tells several stories. At the center is the Parondi family, poor Italians from the south who have moved north to Milan in search of a better life. As they adapt to new jobs and relationships, these simple country people are inevitably corrupted by the city.
The emotional range of Rocco and His Brothers is excessive and theatrical like a Verdi opera and often plays like a modern-day Greek tragedy, particularly in its depiction of the relationship between the good son, the saint-like Rocco, and his brutal sibling, Simone, a promising boxer whose downward spiral ends in total degradation (his arrest for the brutal stabbing death of his prostitute lover, Nadia (Annie Girardot).
Visconti's original purpose in bringing Rocco and His Brothers to the screen was to create a drama with a historical and political focus, one that would address the problem of southern emigration to the northern Italian cities as well as the disintegration of the family and its traditional values. The screenplay, which went through numerous writers and drafts during pre-production, was based on a novel by Giovanni Testori but also inspired by the real lives of migrants who reside in Milan's Porta Ticinese, a sordid working-class slum. It was also heavily influenced by several great literary works - Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, and Arthur Miller's play, A View From the Bridge, which Visconti directed for the theatre in 1958 when he was planning Rocco and His Brothers.
When creating the storyline, screenwriter Suso Cecchi d'Amico recalled (in the biography, Luchino Visconti by Laurence Schifano) that the director said, "I want to do this in a sports setting, boxing, a setting where there's violence," since most Italian boxers were from the southern region. D'Amico admitted, "We spent countless hours in gymnasiums. I spent a year in them, and I don't like boxing. Gradually the subject took shape. Luchino came to my place in Castiglioncello with [screenwriter Vasco] Pratolini to talk and talk. When he talked he was a great actor. He began telling us what he'd seen in Milan, the southern emigration to Milan. Then we went to see those incredible houses where the southerners lived." Eventually, a final script emerged after several alternate subplots were rejected such as one where the brothers pooled their money to buy a lorry to transport oil between Lucania, their hometown, and Milan. A possible ending where Rocco goes mad and his mother returns to their southern village was also dropped.
Visconti was equally decisive on the casting of the film. He decided that Renato Salvatori would be ideal as Simone after witnessing the actor get into a fight with Italian star Umberto Orsini over actress Rossella Falk. "That aroused his enthusiasm," Salvatori recalled in Schifano's biography. "He kept saying: 'But you could have killed him! That's not a bad backhand you've got, not bad." Salvatori was soon enrolled in a five month training program at a gym, working out four to five hours a day. During production, Salvatori fell in love in with his co-star Annie Girardot and they married soon after the film was completed.
Visconti's most important casting decision, however, was the part of Rocco. After meeting Alain Delon in London through the actor's agent Olga Horstig, Visconti knew he had found his ideal lead. "If I'd had to take another actor," Visconti later said, "I would have refused to make the picture. Especially since he has that sadness of someone who has to force himself to hate when he fights because instinctively he's not like that."
Most of the filming of Rocco and His Brothers took place in and around Milan except for a few scenes, in particular the murder sequence which the local authorities feared would hurt the local tourist business. Instead, it was shot at Lake Fogliano in Latina. As for Visconti's relationship with his cast and crew: "Shouting matches were frequent, especially with rebels like Salvatori," according to Schifano in his Visconti biography. "One day he told Salvatori to report for make-up at seven o'clock in the morning and then kept him waiting until eight that evening...Visconti simply needed that exasperated, frantic face for a shot lasting only a few seconds. The result was even better than he had hoped for: when Salvatori was told he would have to do a retake because there had been a maverick bit of wire over the lens, he punched the wall in fury and broke his wrist - but the shot was perfect."
When Rocco and His Brothers first premiered, it attracted considerable controversy, shocking some viewers with its scenes of brutality and violence. It also became Visconti's first commercially successful film. Nevertheless, it incurred numerous censorship problems. Milan officials refused to allow the film to be shown in the city and, when Rocco and His Brothers went into general release, several scenes were considerably shortened such as the fight between the two brothers and Nadia's rape and murder. Initially a four-hour film, it was further cut to a length of less than three hours for its American release version (There was even a 95-minute version in circulation). Despite this, Rocco and His Brothers remains Visconti's most passionate film and is generally acknowledged as a continuation of the story of the Valastros family in La Terra Trema (1948), making it the second film in an uncompleted trilogy about Visconti's poor southern neighbors.
Producer: Giuseppe Bordogni, Goffredo Lombardo
Director: Luchino Visconti
Screenplay: Pasquale Festa Campanile, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Massimo Franciosa, Enrico Medioli, Luchino Visconti
Production Design: Mario Garbuglia
Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Costume Design: Piero Tosi
Film Editing: Mario Serandrei
Original Music: Nino Rota
Principal Cast: Alain Delon (Rocco Parondi), Renato Salvatori (Simone Parondi), Annie Girardot (Nadia), Katina Paxinou (Rosaria Parondi), Max Cartier (Ciro), Spiros Focas (Vincenzo), Rocco Vidolazzi (Luca), Alessandra Panaro (Ciro's fiancee), Paolo Stoppa (Cecchi), Claudia Cardinale (Ginetta).
by Jeff Stafford