It is dark. A train pulls into the “Stazione Centrale” in Milan. On board we meet Rosaria Parondi and her sons Rocco, Simone, Ciro and Luca; they have been travelling for days from Lucania (one of the southernmost areas of Italy between Campania and Calabria).
The train station is cavernous, cold and intimidating. Vincenzo, Rosaria’s oldest son, has already settled in the northern industrial city but he is not at the station to meet his family.
Rosaria and her sons seem excited but also scared and disoriented. As the family ventures into the city, without Vincenzo, by way of a long, descending stairway that transitions mother and sons into their new life, their metaphorical descent into hell is punctuated by the beautiful soundtrack (by the legendary Nino Rota) that shifts from a melancholy, traditional southern melody about immigration to a jazzy, modern sounding tune.
Rocco and his Brothers (1960) is one of the masterpieces of Italian cinema. Its director, the great Luchino Visconti, had been one of the major players in the Italian neo realist movement; he was also an aristocrat, a communist and a great director of theater and opera.
1960 was a charmed year for Italia cinema. The almost simultaneous release of Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers, Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura propelled Italian cinema to unprecedented success and critical acclaim, both domestically and internationally.
This golden age of Italian cinema blossomed against the backdrop of dramatic socio-economic changes in Italy. Starting from the 1950s, gross domestic product, employment, industrial production, and services dramatically increased, while agriculture plunged. During this period, known as the “economic miracle” (with a peak in GDP rate of increase in 1958–1963), the Italian economy grew at double the speed of the average in Europe and per capita income grew more rapidly than in any other European country.
Because the economic growth of this period remained a predominantly northern Italian phenomenon, limited to the “industrial triangle” formed by the cities of Milan, Turin and Genoa, a corollary product of the “economic miracle” was the massive, unprecedented, migration of Italians from the rural areas of Italy (especially in the south) to the industrial cities where opportunities were perceived to be abundant.
The historian Paul Ginsborg articulates it best when he says, “the ‘economic miracle’ meant much more in the history of Italy than a booming economy and rising standards of living. It meant an unparalleled movement of the peninsula’s population.”
In the northern cities at the epicenter of this economic boom, the “Miracle” gave rise to mass consumption and to a demand for “new” products, products of greater exclusivity, often promoted by mass media and advertisements (and with the expansion of capitalism a decline in religion and traditions). But the massive population transfer from the impoverished South to the booming industrial North also exacerbated social contrasts and produced unprecedented inequality and serious social issues. Milan, the success story of northern Italy, was inundated with immigrants. New cheap, quickly built apartments surrounded Milan, many without basic services. Clashes erupted between the old, established “worker aristocracy” and the new, less qualified immigrants (“operaio-massa”) of Southern origin.
Luchino Visconti provides a skillful, insightful, and harshly realistic social commentary on Italy at the peak of the “Miracle.” Rocco and His Brothers offers a gritty portrait of life in working-class Milan in 1960; it was shot in the housing projects and streets of the city. These authentic locations are a prime example of the aesthetic and artistic concerns of neo realism, as the film expresses historical interest on how people lived and what places looked like at a time and place in Italian history. But in telling the story of the harsh adjustment and of the disintegration of the Parondi family in the society of the industrial North the film is also extremely operatic and melodramatic.
The film’s focus shifts among the sons of the Parondi family, dividing its narrative into five chapters, one for each son. We witness the passing of an elusive, unattainable dream: Rosaria’s wish for a reunited family; Vincenzo’s struggle to distance himself from his manipulative mother and begin an independent life and a family; Simone’s continued attempts to reconcile with Nadia and his tragic downward spiral; Rocco’s success as a boxer, his dreams of returning to Lucania and his self-sacrifice; Ciro’s desire to assimilate with the modern, industrialized culture of Milan. Inevitably, the personal pursuit of dreams proves to be the unraveling of the family’s unity, as individual needs conflict with familial responsibility.
Visconti drew on several literary sources for inspiration for this film: the poetry of Rocco Scotellaro, who wrote from the point of view of southerners, Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, and Giovanni Testori’s collection of stories, The Bridge of Ghisolfa. The title for Rocco and His Brothers is also inspired by Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers.
The film stars the legendary Alain Delon as Rocco (in 1960 Delon also played Tom Ripley to critical acclaim in René Clément’s Purple Noon, which was based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Talented Mr. Ripley). It was one of actress Claudia Cardinale’s early roles. The film can be seen as being an influence on American gangster films.
Rocco projects the early character traits of the pure Michael Corleone in Frances Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. The tense, and rocky relationship between Rocco and Simone parallels Scorsese’s characters of Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) in Mean Streets.
The boxing sequences and the violent jealousy that takes over Simone, which ultimately effects the relationship between his brothers, are ideas that Scorsese explored in more disturbing detail in his masterpiece Raging Bull.