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Luchino Visconti

Posted: May 22nd, 2012, 6:11 pm
by kingrat
Let's give the guy his own thread. He's certainly talented, although I have mixed feelings about some of his films.

I found much to enjoy, a fair amount to admire, and quite a bit to question in Visconti’s ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (1960). Visconti assembled a fine cast, a great cinematographer (Giuseppe Rotunno), and a great composer (Nino Rota). The germ of the project was the idea of following a peasant family from Sicily, like the ones in his first film LA TERRA TREMA, as they emigrated to Milan. As in THE GRAPES OF WRATH or Ermanno Olmi’s fine film IL POSTO, the characters were intended to have a wider sociological significance, and this is where ROCCO seems divided against itself.

If the immediate impulse was sociological, the story, credited to numerous hands, seems developed according to a variety of Hollywood models: GOLDEN BOY (immigrant boy trying to make it big by boxing); perhaps FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, with Alain Delon as improbable a boxer as Montgomery Clift was in that film; definitely EAST OF EDEN (brothers who are rivals for the same girl, with Delon a rising star in the James Dean mold); and perhaps the family melodramas of Vincente Minnelli and Douglas Sirk. I like both THE GRAPES OF WRATH and WRITTEN ON THE WIND, but not mixed together in the same film. ROCCO probably succeeds best as soap opera, with its very photogenic cast, yet it also wants to be taken more seriously. I got the definite impression that I wasn’t reacting to some of the characters and plot points as the filmmakers wanted me to.


The thesis of the film seems to be the disintegration of the family under the pressures of big city life, but is that what we really see? As usual, Katina Paxinou, who plays the Mamma, scares the willies out of me; she’s like Norman Bates’ mother come back to life. The oldest son, Vincenzo (Spiros Fokas), seems to be doing all right in Milano until his family shows up. A few hours in town, and like a Sicilian peasant Laura Hope Crews in THE SILVER CORD, Mamma has already smashed her son’s engagement to Claudia Cardinale. What an ungrateful boy, to prefer nookie with Claudia Cardinale to the chokehold of his loving mother. The fourth son, Ciro (Max Cartier), seems more like the hero of the film to me than he does to the filmmakers. He studies to get his mechanic’s license, gets a job, and finds a pretty girlfriend. Like Vincenzo, he seems to flourish in the big city. I think we’re supposed to hiss at him for wanting to turn his brother Simone in to the police, instead of devoting all the family’s energy and money to his rapist/murderer brother. He even stands up to Mamma by going for the police.

The heart of the Sirkus Maximus is the rivalry between the second brother, Simone (Renato Salvatori), who initially seems to have promise as a boxer but won’t work at it, and the third brother, Rocco (Alain Delon). The beautiful young Delon conveys Rocco’s innocence quite touchingly. He doesn’t have the physique usually associated with a boxer, but the story says he has great success in the ring. The third point of the triangle is Nadia (Annie Girardot), a hooker with, you guessed it, a heart of gold. Like many another actress who has brought this trite concept to life, Annie Girardot walks off with the picture. Nadia is Simone’s girl for a little while, then over a year later runs into Rocco. When Simone finds out about this affair, he and his pals track down Nadia and Rocco, and he rapes her while his buddies force Rocco to watch. This is the crux of the film: Rocco decides that this shows how much Simone really loves Nadia (!), so he “magnanimously” turns her over to Simone, who hasn’t even bothered to find out what’s happened to her for over a year. Out of contempt for Rocco and for herself (well communicated by Annie Girardot), Nadia goes along with this, which leads to the inevitable destruction. Other characters see these actions as proof of Rocco’s “saintliness,” but I doubt that many present-day viewers will agree.

Oddly—or perhaps not—the problems of Simone are caused not by his economic circumstances, but by the Iago-like manipulations of a “friend” called Ivo, who makes a point of telling Simone about Rocco and Nadia and where to find them, and then provokes the final catastrophe by telling Simone where to find Nadia. Perhaps Ivo’s motivation, if any, was shown in scenes dropped from the final film, although his sheer malice is certainly believable—it just undercuts the sociological theme. Visconti uses the cliché of cross-cutting between Rocco’s boxing match and the murder, compounding matters with a sudden visual reference to the crucifixion that had me rolling my eyes. Ford and Toland’s crucifixion reference in the death of Ian Hunter in THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is much better handled.

The climactic scene of Simone telling his family that he killed Nadia is way over the top, especially with Katina Paxinou exulting that her boy has killed the putana (the one word of Italian you will definitely learn in this film). The speeches about if they’d only never left Sicily, if only they could go back, etc., ring false. Almost everything that happened could have happened back home; only the details are different.

For those who notice such things: Visconti frames two of the scenes between brothers as love scenes. The first is when Vincenzo, in his underwear, gets out of bed to answer the door. It’s Rocco, who’s been beaten by Simone. Vincenzo brings him to the bed. A tight two-shot shows Vincenzo with arm around his brother’s shoulders. If you turned the TV on just then, you’d think you were seeing a love story. This scene is echoed in the climactic scene after Simone has killed Nadia, and it’s now Rocco comforting his brother Simone, again in a tight two-shot.

One of the finest scenes in the film is the quarrel between Nadia and Rocco on the roof of the cathedral in Milan. This is gorgeously shot and framed. The last shot of the film, with Luca, the youngest brother, and a long row of posters of Rocco, is also memorable.

Re: Luchino Visconti

Posted: October 18th, 2013, 7:11 pm
by kingrat
I’d been wanting to see Visconti’s LE NOTTI BIANCHI (WHITE NIGHTS) for some time, and thanks to TCM, I have. I like Visconti, but he’s never quite clicked with me. (See the comments on ROCCO above.) Early Fellini, on the other hand, is like home. Visconti has great moments, great sequences, but great films? Maybe SENSO will be the one which does it for me. There are some fine things in THE LEOPARD, but couldn’t the aristocracy decline a little faster?

WHITE NIGHTS has beautiful cinematography by the great Giuseppe Rotunno and a wonderful score by Nino Rota. Is it curious that Marcello Mastroianni was sometimes cast as a shy man? Maybe not, considering that Hollywood’s idea of a shy professorly type was Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, or Gary Cooper—and yes, I like BRINGING UP BABY, THE LADY EVE, and BALL OF FIRE. “Women like shy men, “ Maria Schell tells him, which we can amend to “Women like shy men, if they look like Marcello Mastroianni.” Marcello is more convincing as a shy guy in THE ORGANIZER, but WHITE NIGHTS doesn’t go after that kind of realism. Maria Schell is the successor to Garbo in her acting. Love, for her, takes on mythic proportions, so she is ideally cast as the woman who falls in love with a man she barely knows (Jean Marais), refuses to go out with, and then expects him to return to her after no communication for a year. Others have commented on Maria Schell’s strange technique of smiling at inappropriate times; this important part of her acting style suggests that she is unusual, foreign, different from others, and in this instance, perhaps a little mad.

A chance at real love with an actual man (Marcello) or a fantasized connection with someone who may never return? Love’s idealism and its physical manifestations are constantly opposed, whether it’s Marcello’s differing reactions to a prostitute or, in a surprising scene, the twisting dancers whose increasingly frantic (and appealing) gyrations interrupt the idealized conversation of Schell and Mastroianni.

The scene of the two stars in an unexpected snowfall is one of the highlights. What keeps me from responding fully to WHITE NIGHTS, despite its many charms, is the distance Visconti keeps from the lovers, who get few close-ups. The lovers have too much dialogue, and the camera doesn’t provide a counterpoint to what is actually said, which keeps me from the full potential experience. An obvious point of comparison is LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, and to me that reveals what’s missing in Visconti’s approach, as fine as WHITE NIGHTS mostly is.