The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Rocco and His Brothers

A long movie does not necessarily have to be a bad movie.  Some of my favorite movies -- The Great Escape, The Alamo, The Godfather, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly -- all clock in around three hours if not longer.  But these long movies tend to work better in a historical context, the big epic movie.  It's not a hard and fast rule, but it certainly helps.  The Godfather is a 3-hour movie about a mafia family, but for lack of a more educated description; stuff happens.

One of Italy's neorealist films, 1960's Rocco and His Brothers, is a movie that clocks in at just under three hours, and in a similar fashion tells the relationships and inner workings of a large family.  Sure, those relationships develop over time and problems arise, but in telling a story as realistically and personally as possible, the sometimes slow pacing kills any energy that builds up.  Add to the mix characters making decisions that no human being would ever make, and I came away disappointed in a movie that's earned a reputation of a classic.

After the family patriarch dies, the Parondi clan moves north to Milan, leaving their simpler life in the Italian countryside behind them.  The mother, Rosaria (Katina Paxinou), hopes to receive some help settling in from her oldest son, Vincenzo (Spiro Focas), who's moved to the city and is engaged to Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale). Rosaria disapproves of the engagement so now the family and her five sons must figure a way to survive on their own with no means of support.  Vincenzo ends up moving out and living with Ginetta so the other four brothers have to scramble for work.

The second oldest brother, Simone (Renato Salvatori), drifts along until he's spotted working in a gym and starts boxing, quickly rising through the ranks.  Then there's Rocco (Alain Delon), a good-natured, very kind young man who always looks out for his mother and brothers, often at his own expense.  Ciro (Max Cartier) goes to trade school so he can get a job at the Alfa Romeo factory, and the youngest, teenager Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi) makes deliveries for a pharmacy.   Everything seems like they're on the right track, but conflicts and rivalries pop up among the brothers, tearing them apart with little hope of bringing them back together.

In terms of style, 'Rocco' is can't miss with that Italian neorealism filmmaking easily seen throughout the movie.  Filmed in black and white on location in Rome and Milan, director Luchino Visconti delivers a movie that is gorgeous to look at.  The camerawork isn't aggressive but you're always aware the lens is right there in the streets or the crowded apartments with the characters.  Long shots/takes pop up throughout the movie almost as if the camera is there with the characters watching the plot develop.  In a cool little bit of personal style, each segment is introduced with a brother's name as their personal story comes to the forefront.

But as talented as Visconti is and as beautiful a movie as he creates, the visual and the realism only last for so long.  This is a llllllllllllong movie where just about every one of its 175-minute running time is noticeable.  Overall, not much happens other than long scenes of dialogue here and there, then longer segments where nothing is said at all. 

Even with five brothers, the Parondi mother, and a long list of supporting characters, the story centers on Rocco, the saintly brother, and Simone, the supremely flawed brother on a bad road.  Delon is one of my favorites, and his character is beyond likable without a dent in the armor with at least a couple allusions to him being a Christ-like figure.  Salvatori as Simone is everything Rocco isn't.  He drinks, gambles, runs around with women but truly loves one, a prostitute, Nadia (Annie Girardot) and lets his brief success and power go to his head.

The conflict between these two brothers is the key driving force in the 2nd half of the movie as Simone hits wall after wall, causing one problem after another, and driving his family away even though they're trying to help him.  Leading that charge is Rocco who is able to look past all these horrific flaws and decisions because at the core of the problem, Simone is his brother and he can look past it all.  I won't spoil how the relationship develops and climaxes, but let's say Nadia is involved and she ends up with the brother she wants nothing to do with.  Rocco makes decision after decision trying to help his brother when in real life, it feels like NO ONE would ever allow themselves to be stepped on and marched over as much as he does.

I understand making Rocco's character as likable as he is.  After his father dies, Rocco steps into the role of looking out for his family because no one else can.  But there's a limit to that.  I've always had a pet peeve about characters -- not just in movies but also books, TV -- that make a decision(s) because the story requires it.  Add to that element the issue that Simone is impossible to root for, impossible to get behind, and it just becomes more infuriating.  The ending itself is ambiguous and forces you to decide how everything is resolved.  Ideally, Rocco comes to his senses, but that's just too easy.

Knowing this movie was held in high regard by critics and fans alike, I wanted to like this movie, even more so considering the talent involved in front of and behind the camera.  But all things considered, the flaws were just too much.  The movie is far too long, incredibly slow-moving, and the characters make decisions that no sane person would ever make for the sake of the story.  I'll give it 2 stars because it's trying to be something more, and even if it fails, it was a worthy attempt.

Rocco and His Brothers <----trailer (1960): **/****

1 comment:

  1. Visconti's a frustrating director. He can alternately be brilliant or dull - or both at once. Death in Venice is among the most beautiful films ever shot, but it's also empty and tedious. The Leopard though is a masterpiece.