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To journey from the worlds of La Dolce Vita and L'Avventura to that of Rocco and His Brothers is to discover a complex, human statement that goes beyond vignette or myth to the difficult realm of life. Occasionally marred by over-emphasized symbolism and over-played brutality, Rocco subjects one to the ordeals of its creator, and in so doing escapes the usual pitfalls of social realism. It is as if Luchino Visconti (who wrote and directed) were, in one grueling gasp, saying "No, not all poor people are victimized saints; not all city life; yes, tragedy results from human weakness and conflicting desires, including the desire to hurt others."
Set in industrial Milan, Rocco tells of a southern peasant family's coming to grips with an urban world. Variations on an Oedipal theme provide the central plot line, as we see against the spectre of an overprotective mother (Katina Paxinou) the struggle of the saintlike Rocco (Alain Delon) to save Simon (Renato Salvatori) from the dishonorable ways he has fallen into. The tragic situation is provoked by the love affair of Rocco and Nadia (Annie Girardot), a prostitute whom Simon had loved and lost. When Simon learns of Rocco's success, he drives himself to re-enact the primal crime, raping Nadia in Rocco's presence, beating his brother, and eventually killing the woman who can but tell him, "You dirtied the only beautiful thing in my life." Rocco forgives his brother yet again, and the film ends with his saying "We must help him, not judge him."
There lacks space to describe the subtle touches which Visconti employs to weave in his other ideas about city and country, and human desire. But indications of his understanding good and evil in one vision such as Vincenzo's benefitting from urban life reveal his faithfulness to his conception of truth.
Technically, Rocco approaches the greatest Italian films, especially as the camera concentrates on the faces of the actors, never letting one forget that this is a human drams. Each individual performance conveys this sense of inescapable humanity, and in Visconti's bringing them together, he makes for us a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.
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