Rocco and His Brothers: still relevant today

Rocco and His Brothers is undeniably a classic masterpiece. The names of its director, Luchino Visconti, and of cast members Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot and Claudia Cardinale are well-known to film lovers; and several movies directed by Martin Scorsese were influenced by Rocco and His Brothers.

Poster of Rocco and His BrothersDon’t make the mistake of thinking, however, that you need to be a film buff to appreciate watching the vicissitudes of Rocco and his family. Exhibit A: yours truly, whose usual TV viewing choices are too embarrassing to share here.

I was swept away by Visconti’s work. I loved the cinematography — the imposing sight of Milan’s Central Train Station in the opening shots; the pivotal scene amid the the spires atop Milan Cathedral; the close-ups showing the play of emotions on the actors’ faces.

The plot was similarly absorbing. I had been concerned about how I would cope sitting in the cinema for almost three hours straight, but there were enough twists and turns in the story that not once was I tempted to sneak a look at the time.

This is not to say that I *liked* many of the events unfolding on the screen; the way in which Nadia, the character played by Annie Girardot, is treated was particularly disturbing. Some of the acting in the film also feels somewhat outlandish to a modern eye  — Rocco’s mother, for instance, comes across at times as rather histrionic, evincing the occasional titter from the audience at moments which are meant to be dramatic. Nonetheless I could not look away from the tragedy unfolding in front of my eyes.

Image from Rocco and His Brothers

Ostensibly the driving force of Rocco and His Brothers is the conflict between two of the brothers, Rocco and Simone, who both love the same woman, Nadia. However this is just the catalyst to explore the very different ways in which the five brothers and their widowed mother cope with the difficulties of adapting to life in the big Northern industrial city of Milan, a setting so foreign from their impoverished Southern Italian village.

This narrative is a key element in the history of post-war Italy: migrants like Rocco’s family moved up North in droves to power the economic miracle which transformed the country from a poor rurally-based one to an industrial power. It is not hard to draw a parallel between their experiences and those of modern-day migrants who have left the metaphorical South of the world to make an arguably better life in the richer Western countries.

This parallel is what made Rocco and His Brothers relevant to me fifty-seven years after it was filmed. It is also why I don’t hesitate to recommend that you watch it, film buff or not that you may be.

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