On Selflessness in Rocco and His Brothers (1960)

Almost two thirds of the way through Luchino Visconti’s cynical masterpiece, we witness one of the most disturbing scenes of sexual violence in the history of cinema. In an act born out of utter jealousy and vengeance, the titular Rocco is made to watch Simone (his brother) raping his girlfriend Nadia, who had previously been in a relationship with Simone. The sequence is incredibly stark, blending a dissonant soundtrack and long shots to emphasise the hopelessness and brutality of the attack. Visconti still employs one of his many close-ups of Rocco’s face, this time bloodied and crying. For Visconti, to show Alain Delon like this is an act of violence itself; even the complexion of Rocco’s face can convey the immense tragedy of the film.

Watching Rocco being beaten on the pavement by his brother – the alien, distant and glowing structures of apartment buildings in the background – we are led in desperation to question the horrific act that Simone has just committed. It is beyond hope. The scene, by pulling back and immersing us in a strange juxtaposition of coldness and excess, seems to be one of the bleakest that we ever seen. What is even more surprising is Rocco’s decision later in the film to protect Simone, scolding another of their brothers, Ciro, for reporting him to the police. This time he has killed Nadia, finalising the film’s shift from neorealist family drama to a melodrama of biblical archetypes and sins that cannot be erased.

Rocco’s sacrifice is one of the great enigmas of the film, and what makes it challenging for me as a text. We would perhaps like to say that in defending his brother and casting out the prostitute Nadia, Rocco is making a disgusting and morally abhorrent decision, but the movie arguably maintains a position of moral neutrality.

It is important firstly to question whether what Rocco does is really a sacrifice. It is certainly uncompromising and inflicts a great deal of pain on himself, but it is also highly disturbing in its negation of any kind of redemption or resolution. In addition to this, its moral and legal implications are inherently negative. For Rocco, however, it is the only choice to make. Visconti emphasises the fractured yet somehow blank interiority of Delon’s character through the aforementioned use of close-ups, suggesting a kind of stoicism that renders almost all of his actions sacrificial in some way. There is a sense that he simply stands by as the forceful personalities of his relatives create immense suffering. 

Rocco is relentlessly selfless in the amount he gives up for his family. His engagements with boxing and the military are key examples of this, in which this notion of blankness takes up the guise of different identities. There is no greater visualisation of self-sacrifice than literally changing or covering the “self”. And yet his decisions are still contemptable. Visconti probes us to ask the highly contemporarily relevant question: when does defending someone become an act of offence, or, when does selflessness become selfish?  

We have already seen through some meticulously detailed and ensemble-led sequences the film’s focus on the titular family, tracing the mother’s move to the city of Milan and the extreme backdrop of poverty that surrounds them. The mother especially is haunted by the invisible presence of the rural Italy that they have left behind, but Visconti also aligns Simone with the more modern environment, having him fall for the urban vices of gambling and alcoholism. In a relatively unassuming and naturalistic scene of the family travelling through the city by tram, Simone stares out at the neon signs and remarks in wonder, ‘it’s like daylight’. While this observation conjures an aura of artificiality, the film is neither for nor against either of these locations. Indeed, the more traditional traits associated with the country are also shown to engender cruelty, as with the mother’s irrational hatred of Nadia.

Nadia herself, like Simone, is a character who embodies the new urban environment. She is a prostitute that disrupts the order of the family through no real fault of her own. Despite his vices, Simone is a contradictory character who oscillates between these two worlds, and it is actually his absolute subsidence to urban pleasures that highlights his incompatibility with them. It is no mistake that the rape is staged in a jarring, swamp-like merger of the rural and the urban, hauntingly suggesting the inevitability of Simone’s crime. He is repeatedly characterised as a brute and reaches through this apocalyptic environment a state of absolute inhumanity that belies any moral expectations of him.

Similarly, when he finally kills Nadia, she struggles and crawls through the mud of a riverbank on the outskirts of the city, with this liminal location providing safety and comfort for no character. It is the jagged, uncomfortable void between two worlds. The scene is intercut with the more manufactured, sharp and angular setting of the boxing ring, where Rocco is fighting a championship match. His anger at his brother (which seems appropriate but causes him great shame) has now been entirely displaced onto the sport. For Rocco, hatred is unacceptable no matter what his brother has done, and it is this ignorance that is his most integral trait.

Rocco sacrifices his emotions for a justification of Simone that seems horrific to a contemporary audience. Indeed, the extent of his self-repression is overwhelming. He protects Simone when he robs and even signs his own boxing contract to make up for his failings. Thus, the brothers mirror each other in many ways, and Visconti shows what happens to the binary of good and evil when a new, chaotic society influences these classical conflicts.

Rocco’s break with Nadia – perhaps his greatest sacrifice personally – occurs on top of Milan Cathedral, where one almost existentially distant shot at the end of the scene frames this magnificent gothic structure within the backdrop of buildings adorned with huge consumerist icons such as the Coca-Cola logo.

Catholicism and sin are central concepts to the film, but there is a disjunction between their relevance to the film morally and aesthetically. As with the signifiers of this burgeoning post-war capitalist state, Visconti is keen to display these things in a visually distinct yet realistic way, but we are not guided towards any real opinions of them. We can tell by the extraordinarily powerful setting of the Cathedral that we should be evaluating Rocco and Nadia’s dialogue in a religious context, yet it is unclear where our judgement should lie.

I have always personally been drawn to films that emphasise contradictions, especially moral ones; and in this sense Rocco and his Brothers is incredibly complex. The irreconcilable paradox of country and city is joined by many more: beauty and ugliness, family and society, purpose and hedonism, as well as the stylistic tension between realism and melodrama. Visconti himself clearly wants to stress a lavishness and a beauty in his films that may have evaded other directors associated with neorealism. The casting of Alain Delon as Rocco is exemplary of this, with his conventional attractiveness emphasising the quality of essential good that is central to his character.

Nadia is also good however, and Rocco’s ignorance to this fact renders his own selflessness a bleak and fatalistic one. He operates purely based on an obligatory love for his family, but his decisions are also situational, reacting entirely to Simone’s more active and destructive persona. As with Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot (1868), which this film was partially inspired by, Visconti brings to life the conflicts between an objectively “good” character and the muddied, morally subjective society that surrounds him. Visconti’s revelation is that sacrifice without context can actually be dehumanising and incalculably selfish.

Notably, parallels have been drawn between this film and the works of Martin Scorsese. The austere and dramatic use of the boxing ring as a setting in this film was surely important to Raging Bull (1980), but there are also similarities to Scorsese’s earlier classic Mean Streets (1973), which features the aggravatingly smug and self-destructive Johnny, played invisibly and masterfully by Robert De Niro. Both films chart the inevitable tragedy caused by other character’s inabilities to let go of these irrevocably harmful people. Johnny is more likeable than Simone, who is frequently characterised as an aggressive and selfish brute. Like Scorsese, Visconti is highly concerned with how people in dire situations address the issues of morality and fate. The mournful tone of Rocco is achieved by admitting that sometimes, they don’t.

By the end of the film, our sense of alienation from this world is only heightened. Rocco embraces Simone after what he has done – the older, violent brother now nothing more than a crying, pulsing mass. Ciro tells the youngest brother Luca not to fear the changes of the city, returning to his factory work as the most well-adjusted member of the family, comfortable in a changing world that has broken the others. During this poignant and beautiful closing scene, we see a myriad of identical posters of Rocco, reducing him once again to a blank slate – an ambiguous, fractured identity that has sacrificed itself for something quite intangible, his principles dwarfed in comparison to what he has lost.


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