Luchino Visconti isn't exactly the most accessible of your quality Italian directors; I have a book about him that I've read several times but I've not been able to see many of his pictures. The Leopard and Ossessione showed up on the old Z channel, and both were fascinating (even with Burt Lancaster dubbed, as I remember). I've also seen Senso, which was great; I understand some kind of DVD is on the way for this title. But the book was full of interesting-sounding titles that are not easy to see at all, like Bellissima and La Vaghe stelle del'Orsa (what a great mysterious title!). Savant caught up with his return to neo-realism, Rocco e i suoi fratelli, on laser about ten years ago and have to admit that I appreciate it a lot more now. It's a family saga long on credibility and short on sentiment, and a powerful show, very interesting.
Country cousins trying to make it in the big city is a theme from just about every culture, but Visconti's tale of the Parondis takes none of the melodramatic turns you might expect. The hicks from the south are naive about modern living in a big city like Milan, and woefully undereducated, but they're treated in totally unsentimental terms. The boys suit up at the gym in their long-john underwear, not understanding when they're laughed at, but they have a good sense of dignity and a fresh optimism that places them in good stead in their struggle to subsist.
The ostensible hero is actually the most naive. Rocco interacts with such thoughtful shyness and responds to cynicism with such direct honesty that he elicits trust in all directions. He melts the heart of a hardboiled working girl, and the transformation she undergoes is the most uplifting thing in the movie. Brother Simone would be a total villain in anyone else's picture, but the character's evolution from insecure ambition to brutish cruelty is charted in an arc that never condemns him outright, even when he commits terrible crimes. He's playing out his character, but for part of the way it's only because he's enabled by the charitable support of his 'good' brother. Rocco's inability to see anything bad in others inadvertently does just as much damage to those around him. It's a very interesting dynamic, and it keeps Rocco and his Brothers from becoming just another soap opera.
Standouts in the cast play equally unsentimentalized characters: Katina Paxinou (For Whom the Bell Tolls) is an emotional cyclone of an Italian Mama, but her survival instincts make things tough for the women with whom her boys become involved. A happy party turns into a total disaster because of her thin skin, and her condemnation of Ginetta certainly makes things worse for poor Vincenzo. Mama Parondi's screaming dramatic fireworks with Nadia are gripping because we know enough about both women to feel the tragedy: Mama cannot see past the putana to know that Nadia is a good woman without options; So thoroughly has Nadia given up on herself, that all her energy is devoted to lashing out at those around her. Renato Salvatore makes Simone less a victim of fate than a selfish lout just following his true nature, and Alain Delon is surprisingly excellent as the sweet and devoted Rocco. We're far more used to seeing him as a ruthless character in pictures like Le Samorai.
A major pleasure of Rocco and his Brothers is simply seeing its portrait of life in working-class Milan in 1960. Beautifully directed in the housing projects and streets of the city, this is a prime example of a film which will accrue historical interest simply because it shows so much of how people lived and what places looked like (now) 40 years ago. The Parondis don't know how they're ever going to find a home they can afford, until they get clued in on how the system works: if you're struggling, you take an apartment you can't afford. Only when you're evicted do you qualify for low-cost or free government housing.
Image's DVD of Rocco and his Brothers is a very handsome 1:66 transfer that does a good job of showing off Giuseppe Rotunno(On the Beach)'s wonderful B&W photography. Apparently heavily cut here in the states for its original release, the packaging takes pains to emphasize the fact that this is a full-length restoration at 168 minutes. Yet the IMDB says 182 in Italy and 175 for the US, which may of course be an error. There's certainly no feeling of anything being missing. There's no specific copyright holder listed on the DVD case, which is odd because Image usually acts as a semi-distributor for separate content providers. Nino Rota's music score is very impressive and deceptively unobtrusive; it's far more accomplished than his dour melodies for the Godfather films. A couple of songs are heard in the track that Mrs. Savant said captured exactly the tone of melancholy singers she heard in Italy in the early '70s, especially the tune over the end credits.The film has removeable English subtitles, is in mono and has no extras; if you want real insight into its place in the Visconti canon, it's a trip to library for you.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,