If you thought your family was dysfunctional, wait ‘til you meet the Parondis. In Luchino Visconti’s melodramatic epic from 1960, in-brother bickering and love affairs are given Shakespearean hugeness; feuds become tragedies, the dinner table becomes a battleground. Rocco and His Brothers is a rich, hugely rewarding family saga that makes the ordinariness of characters’ actions into grand gestures of cosmic inevitability, whose very beginning and end feels like the start and stop of the universe itself.
At the centre of all this is Rocco himself (Alain Delon): fresh-faced and eager, he and his brothers set to make their new life in Milan work. As their careers and interests begin to pull them away from one another, a new factor lands right in their midst: Nadia (Annie Girardot), a force of nature as much as catnip for the boys, who are all still uneasily blossoming from adolescence. Eventually becoming romantically involved with not only Rocco, but also his boxer brother Simone (Renato Salvatori), her arc starts to resemble that of a beautiful, small planet orbiting two warring suns in a figure-eight; as the years pass, passion leads to crime, and then to estrangement.
In Visconti’s hands, Rocco and His Brothers transcends its melodrama trappings; in truth, its lush attention to detail lends it a realism most dramas only dream of, a sturdy framework on which to set the spirited destinies of its larger-than-life characters. But only a tremendous cast could live up to the director’s magisterial fantasies; Salvatori is a highlight as Simone, oozing jealousy toward Rocco while also living in a delusion that casts its tall shadow over the family until it’s too late. But the movie’s trump card, seeming to automatically focus the camera on her loving, lusting gaze, is Girardot as Nadia; an intensely tragic character, she wears her inner brokenness as just another fashion accessory, her darkly made-up eyes as dressed-up windows into a soul, somewhere misplaced.
Split into different parts, roughly following one of the brothers at a time – though always looping back to the central circumstance of Rocco and his journey through adulthood – and running at just under three hours in length, Visconti’s opus has a touch of the sublime about it. Although some of its firework-like histrionics can seem a tad dated today, Rocco and His Brothers is a luminous reminder of the vitality of life. Seeming to want to burst into song at any moment – and Rocco really is only a few tentative steps away from being a full-blown musical at any given moment – the very celluloid almost seems to shimmer with energy. Melodrama has a bad reputation, but here, it’s used in the noblest possible iteration of the term – peeling back the mundane, and emboldening the emotion beneath.
Rocco and His Brothers is available on Blu-ray on March 14, from Eureka! as part of their Masters of Cinema series.