[This is my second entry in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan of The Matinee.]
Family sucks. Seriously. You’re born into it—no choice, no argument—and it shapes you, for better or worse. You’re totally dependent on it. It cultivates a sense of responsibility in you, of loyalty and debt. No matter how flawed or fucked up or frustrating your family members are, you still have to accept them as a fundamental part of your life. Your family can please or pain you, but (even through their absence) they are always there.
These truths are at the core of Rocco and His Brothers (1960), Luchino Visconti’s epic of family dysfunction. In its representation of the Parondi brothers, the film captures the thorny coupling of love and hate that characterizes most sibling relationships. The brothers brawl, then reconcile; they hold one another up, then let one another down. Suffocated by poverty, each brother maps out his own dreams: a new apartment, a steady paycheck, fame in the boxing ring. But none can avoid the downward pull of family obligation.
The brother who pulls the most is Simone. As played by Renato Salvatori, he’s a model of blinkered machismo, incapable of adjusting his ambitions (both as boxer and ladies’ man) to fit reality. Initially charming, he quickly outs himself as a manipulative lecher, then slides into delusion and depravity throughout the remainder of the film. He’s the family instigator, knocking down his brothers and ex-girlfriend like dominoes, letting his resentment for Rocco destroy him from the inside.
Rocco’s played by beautiful French star Alain Delon, and he’s the family dark horse. Initially modest and hard-working, his star rises while Simone’s fades: he gets the boxing career, the pride, and (for a time) the girl. But like the rest of his brothers—the newlywed Vincenzo, the peacemaker Ciro, and the preteen Luca—he’s dragged into Simone’s toxic orbit. Violence flows between them like a contagion as, courtesy of the film’s precise structure, we watch their respective subplots grow and intertwine for three rich hours.
For all its fixation on family values, Rocco and His Brothers is never sentimental. In Visconti’s Neorealist vision, Milan is a greasy collection of piazzas and housing complexes; economic mobility is a pleasant myth; and the Parondi brothers are typically clad in wifebeaters and their own sweat. Discontent germinates out of cramped apartment life to the tune of Nino Rota’s often tense, sometimes warm, always sensual score. It’s a seamy, uncomfortable depiction of working-class life that’s brimming with uncomfortable truths.
With this radical honesty and thematic breadth, it’s no surprise that Rocco was a huge influence on the cinema of New Hollywood. Descendants of the Parondi brothers are everywhere, most visibly in The Godfather—a film whose Rota score also has a leitmotif in common with Rocco’s—and Raging Bull, another film about boxing, self-destruction, and sibling rivalry that couldn’t exist without Visconti. Following in Rocco’s stead, these films present unvarnished family life, with all its respites and tragedies, where the only fate worse than being together is being apart.