Young Star

Milan: In the claws of light


While watching the movie Rocco and His Brothers (Luchino Visconti, 1960), I had the feeling that I’d seen it before — in Tagalog.

After the death of her husband, Rosaria Parondi (Katina Paxinou, overacting) and her sons leave their dirt-poor village of Lucania in southern Italy and descend unannounced on the eldest son, Vincenzo, in

Milan. On the night of their arrival, Vincenzo is at his engagement party: he’s marrying the beautiful but bland Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale). Rosaria and sons crash the party, and when she hears that Vincenzo is getting married she is not happy at all. She launches into a tirade about how his first duty is to his family, then she insults Ginetta’s family and storms out with her sons.

So far, a Tagalog melodrama.

The Parondis move into a tenement; their plan is to get evicted so the city will be forced to put them in socialized housing. (Granted, this is not an option in Pinoy movies.) Vincenzo trains at a boxing gym, but he’s weak and living in the city has made him soft. Simone (Renato Salvatori) the second son is a talented boxer who gets involved with the prostitute Nadia (Annie Girardot). Rocco the third son gets a job at a laundry; the youngest boys Ciro and Luca go to school.

The middle sons are the focal point of the movie: Simone the selfish, lazy, irresponsible brother, and Rocco the self-sacrificing, forgiving, dependable brother. Simone is the small-town boy corrupted

by the big city; Rocco remains true to his roots. Simone is very bad so it’s natural to hate him, but Rocco is too good, and the way he gives in to everybody all the time begins to look like weakness. Both are incredible black-and-white characterizations, but the actors make them work. Salvatori would be at home in a Filipino melodrama. Delon is so beautiful, it’s amazing that no one in the movie brings it up.

Still nothing that would be out of place in a Tagalog movie, but the story of migrants who come to the city in search of opportunity, the clear-cut struggle between good and evil... we’re getting warmer.

Simone ruins his chances at a professional boxing career by being too lazy to train and too vain to take a beating. It’s Rocco the saint who becomes a champion, but he loathes boxing because it draws its power from the hatred in his heart. The hatred comes courtesy of Simone, who discovers that his ex-girlfriend Nadia the prostitute is in love with Rocco.

In the most over-the-top sequence, Simone finds the lovers, humiliates Nadia in front of Rocco, then beats Rocco senseless. After that Rocco not only forgives Simone, but tells Nadia to go back to him because he needs her!

The huge emotional scenes, the love corrupted by economic necessity, the cathartic outbursts... I’m watching a Lino Brocka movie made over a decade before Brocka made his feature debut. Rocco and His Brothers was shown in Manila theatres in the ‘60s, along with many other European films; one could argue a direct influence on the Filipino filmmaker’s work.

In the end Rocco is proven wrong. Simone’s behavior grows worse and worse, and Nadia wears her doom like an evening gown. Rocco still believes that he can go home to Lucania one day. Rosaria cannot understand what’s happened to her family. It is Ciro, who has gone to night school and become a mechanic at the Alfa-Romeo plant, who sees that total self-sacrifice for the sake of one’s family is not the way to survive.

Rocco and His Brothers is the very definition of operatic melodrama — yelling, weeping, popping veins, gesticulating towards the heavens. In many scenes, the brothers throw themselves on each other like histrionic rugby players. The movie is a compelling portrait of the harsh lives of migrants in an industrial age. It is beautifully composed, powerfully acted, and in its most extreme moments it reaches for the sublime. Luchino Visconti shows us one of the most arresting faces to appear on the screen, and then he beats it to a bloody pulp.

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