Tag Archives: italy

Brotherly Love

[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.

1 Comment

Filed under Cinema

Living La Dolce Vita

Taking a short break from our Halloween Countdown, I’d like to peek inside Federico Fellini’s sprawling masterpiece La Dolce Vita (1960) and, as part of The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series, pick out my favorite image from the film. Since La Dolce Vita is like a zillion hours long (OK, more like three), I had a lot to choose from. I ended up saving 27 total screenshots. Some of my favorites were the repeated shots of women in profile; of people turning back as they’re about to exit a room; and of tiny figures seen in extreme long shot against desolate streets. But all in all, my best shot was one of Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), our jaded protagonist, sitting in an old room.

At this point in the film, Marcello is wandering around a centuries-old estate with his quasi-girlfriend Maddalena (Anouk Aimée). She has him sit down in this room, then goes and speaks into a passageway that makes her ghostly voice echo in the other room. When he realizes she can hear him, Marcello starts one of his impassioned, embarrassingly intimate pleas to Maddalena. Little does he know, she’s making out with another guy in silence. I love the subtle way this scene mocks the film’s narcissistic central character. After all, Marcello freely treats those around him like shit, so it’s gratifying when women he lusts after – whether Maddalena or the buxom starlet Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) – turn a deaf ear to his romantic entreaties.

This image is beautifully composed, as Marcello, the chair, the doors, and their shadows all visually interact. The setting also contains a few little ironies. Throughout La Dolce Vita, we’re treated to all these jarring meshes of religious and secular, old and new, frenzied and contemplative, profound and meaningless. Here, the ancient solemnity of an aristocratic Roman manor is the site of a petty, vulgar love affair between two rootless urbanites with too much time on their hands. But it’s not just a simple matter of black and white, either: Marcello’s monologue is poignant because he clearly does want to find a deeper purpose, but is held back by his own metaphysical near-sightedness. And the manor isn’t just stately and solemn; it’s also anachronistic and crumbling.

It’s fitting, then, that this crumbling house’s tenants, a wide-reaching family of decadent aristocrats, should be represented by typical Fellini grotesques. Il Maestro is still renowned for his ability to pick out memorable faces, and I think the image above is a great example. These blue bloods look so narcotized, as if they’re near death; they’re lounging about so lazily. The pearls, the smoke, and the disheveled hair are especially nice touches. (So is extensive supply of alcohol.) They look and act as if they’re leftovers from a wax museum. Just like their house, they’re lost to history, members of a family that has undoubtedly seen better days.

This noble family’s debased, apathetic nature makes Marcello’s visit to the mansion into a sort of ironized, no-stakes ghost story. The building’s untouched rooms and dark corridors are ominous, to be sure, but the hollow laughter of the family members and their guests takes away any sense of mystery or danger. Any power that the house might once have had is now totally devalued, as it’s just another dusty relic. Rome’s historical legacies are now on an equal plane with the shallow pursuits that, for Marcello & co., constitute the sweet life. I’ll end with an especially depressing image (why not!): after he perpetrates a tragic murder-suicide, Marcello’s friend Steiner is covered in a sheet by the police and left in his living room.

I’m not sure how to take this image, which is immediately followed by a dissolve to the next scene. In one sense, it reads as a very black joke in which Steiner’s inert, bloodied body has become just another piece of furniture. It also drives home just how murky the motivation behind Steiner’s action is. Either way, it’s akin to rest of La Dolce Vita in that it presents a serious tragedy in a slightly ridiculous light. In Fellini’s modern world, every action and emotion is commodified, as mosquito-like photojournalists try to convert lurid details into wider circulation and more money. For Marcello, feelings can only be expressed when they’re couched inside vulgar gestures. It’s a sweet life, isn’t it?

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema

Images of Ossessione

I recently saw Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), a pioneering work of neorealism and proto-noir. It’s based on James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and although Visconti’s fugitive lovers are pointedly rooted in the economic upheavals of 1940s Italy, the film still establishes a mood I very much identify with Cain: Gino and Giovanna share desperately erotic moments while fate tightens its steely grip. Visconti merges the doomed romanticism of hard-boiled literature with an eye for the details of everyday village life.

Suffice it to say, it’s both very sexy and very tragic. Instead of writing extensively about it, however, I’ve selected a few stills from the film to show what I’m talking about. What especially interested me was how Gino (Massimo Girotti) is visually represented. He’s often rendered in terms of flesh, whether working as a mechanic for Giovanna’s husband or making love to her behind his back – his body is seen as both an economic and sexual force. In any event, it’s a beautifully photographed film. Any thoughts?

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema