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Review: Restored classic ‘Rocco and His Brothers’ explores success and personal desolation

Restored classic ‘Rocco and His Brothers’ explores success and  personal desolation
Claudia Cardinale in “Rocco and His Brothers.”
(Astor Pictures Corp.)
Los Angeles Times Film Critic

A disturbing, despairing epic of the soul, the Italian “Rocco and His Brothers” is a film both authentic and ambitious, a classic that is as adept at telling individual stories as it is in drawing larger parallels from them.

First released in 1960, winner of 22 international awards and now available in a sparkling 4K digital restoration that took more than 3,000 hours to complete, “Rocco” tells the story of the unintended consequences faced by the five Parondi brothers when they, along with their mother, flee the grim poverty of southern Italy in the hope of improved lives in northern industrial Milan.

Considered by its director, the Italian master Luchino Visconti (“The Leopard,” “Death in Venice,” “La Terra Trema”) to be his personal favorite, “Rocco” mixes neo-realistic observation with larger-than-life emotions in a way that came to characterize the filmmaker. 

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“My work almost always betrays a touch of the operatic,” the director said. “I’ve been accused of that, but actually I take it as a compliment.”

The film’s French stars, a criminally handsome 25-year-old Alain Delon and the incandescent Annie Girardot, shot to international acclaim after this film, which also featured strong work from Renato Salvatori, Claudia Cardinale and Oscar-winning Greek actress Katina Paxinou. As was typical of Italian production at the time, all the foreign actors, and some of the Italians as well, had their dialogue dubbed in post-production.

Behind the camera was the great cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, whose images are both masterful and lyric. Nino Rota wrote the score, Piero Tosi did the costumes, and the legendary screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico was one of those who collaborated with Visconti on the story and screenplay.

This three-hour version includes restored scenes that were ordered removed by an Italian board of censors for a level of violence that is still unnerving today. The film starts in classic neo-realistic style as the brothers (“like five fingers of the same hand,” says their mother) share a warm sequence of getting up early on a wintry Milan morning to earn much-needed money by shoveling snow.

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“Rocco” is broken into sections, each named after one of the brothers, starting with the eldest, Vincenzo (Spiros Focas), already in Milan and engaged to Ginetta (Cardinale), a situation his domineering mother, Rosaria (Paxinou), is not happy about.

Rosaria is also understandably troubled by the brothers’ attraction to the magnetic, intoxicating Nadia (Girardot), a young prostitute they meet by chance. Enormously seductive from the first moment she’s introduced, Girardot’s Nadia has so much vitality she becomes the film’s most compelling character, a flesh-and-blood representative of the fatal seductiveness of urban life.

Uncertain about where they fit in, the three eldest brothers gravitate by turn to boxing, always the refuge of the outsider. Vincenzo has stopped before the film begins, but Simone (Salvatori) immediately takes it up.

Physically strong but without the necessary work ethic, Simone does well at first, but his passion for Nadia soon takes over his life. Next in the ring is Delon’s Rocco, the film’s titular character, a sweet-natured, almost saintly man who is fatally changed by the world around him.

For it is the thrust of “Rocco and His Brothers” that the urban experience eats these characters alive, turning even the best of the brothers into the worst possible versions of themselves. “Rocco” is an epic of personal desolation, where outward success leaves its characters empty and trapped.

Visconti’s interest here is not only personal and psychological but socioeconomic as well. Though the director (who made “La Terra Trema” about the dire poverty in the country’s south) understands completely why people leave, he wants to point out the consequences, the way people are unmoored and all but destroyed by leaving the land. This is not a film with answers but one that asks questions in a profound and dramatic way.

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‘Rocco and His Brothers’

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No MPAA rating

Running time: 3 hours

Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles; Playhouse, Pasadena; Town Center, Encino

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