This review was originally written for Blueprint: Review.
After the death of her husband, Rosario Parondi (Paxinou) takes her four youngest sons Simone (Salvatori), Rocco (Delon), Ciro (Cartier) and Luca (Vidolazzi) to stay with their oldest brother Vincenzo (Focás) in Milan. However, Vincenzo is trying to build his own life there, having just celebrated his engagement to Ginetta (Cardinale). The family are forced to stay in very humble lodgings, all sharing one room and not enough beds, whilst the boys struggle to find work in the city. Eventually the multitude of vices commonplace to city life begin to drive the brothers apart, especially by the beautiful yet troubled Nadia (Girardot).
Rocco and His Brothers is basically a soap opera, and the problem with soap operas is they never have an end. It’s the same reason I don’t enjoy Richard Linklater’s Before franchise, as it could conceivably continue in perpetuity, never reaching a satisfying conclusion (I also hate the two main characters, find their whole relationship meaningless and everything they discuss to be naval-gazing drivel, but that’s a topic for another day). Here, we follow the five brothers and their mother, but predominantly Rocco and Simone, as their family attempts to live in a new city, but there’s no sense of a driving narrative. No ultimate goal anyone is hoping to achieve. Each character has a life they are leading, and it impacts the lives of their immediate relatives, but not to the extent where arcs are drawn to clear conclusions. This is very much a familial character study more so than a traditional narrative, which can be frustrating for some.
What can also be frustrating is how some of these characters behave. This film does little to help diffuse the stereotypes of overbearing, melodramatic older Italian women and their overtly masculine offspring, with every woman over the age of 50 essentially behaving like Doris Roberts in Everybody Loves Raymond. An early scene sees Rosario surprising Vincenzo at his engagement party, held at Ginetta’s family home. When it is made clear that Ginetta’s family does not have room for so many strangers at such short notice, Rosario takes this as a high offence and a family rivalry is immediately instated, one that has yet to recede by the end of the film. Such histrionics are difficult to comprehend, especially when we see other family members suffering through no fault of their own.
With so many main characters, many of whom look quite similar, being brothers and all (Ciro in particular has a habit of looking like any one of his brothers at any given time), it would be understandable to often confuse them with one another, but a high point of the film is how well realised the individual characters are and their relationships within the family unit. Vincenzo is keen to break away and begin living his own life outside of his mother’s influence, and becomes burdened by his new family in place of the old one. Simone is a hot-head, strong and impulsive with a flair for boxing and a questionable moral compass that sees him causing far more trouble than he is willing to be held responsible for, leaving the often-ludicrously moral Rocco to mop up his mess, to great personal sacrifice. Ciro on the other hand lets people make their own mistakes and learns from them, planning to make something of himself via the more traditional route of studying and getting a steady job. Only the youngest, Luca, remains unclear, but that’s more because he gets so little to do. His role is more a glimpse of hope for the future than anything for the present.
The story we see is not a boring one, in fact it heads in some intense and unexpected directions, but the lack of focus makes it hard to get too involved in. The knowledge that this story will just keep going or peter out in favour of a new one makes the whole experience seem worthless. There’s a lot of great acting, some beautiful camerawork and an overall well-finished production (except for an effect to hide a television’s refresh rate that appears to have been crudely hand-drawn in afterwards and looks absolutely awful), but overall this is an unsatisfying watch. Plus, at almost three hours in length, it’s a long journey to take without a worthwhile destination at the end.
Choose Life 6/10