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As soon as they arrive in Milan from the dirt poor Southern province of Lucania in Luchino Visconti's chiaroscuro working-class opera "Rocco and His Brothers," the Parondi family runs into trouble. They descend uninvited on the engagement party of Vincenzo (Spiros Focás), one of five sons of the widow Rosaria (Katina Paxinou). They expect lodging and find instead outrage from the fiancee's family. The downfall of the Parondis — five brothers united like the fingers of a hand, as Rosaria puts it — begins.

Visconti — the aristocratic aesthete, heroic partisan, and occasional communist — made "Rocco" in 1960. By then he had directed what some consider the first neorealist film — his debut, "Ossessione" (1943), an adaptation of "The Postman Always Rings Twice." Perhaps because Mussolini was still in charge, Visconti toned down his Leninist politics and focused more on noir.

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His second film, "La Terra Trema" (1948), was neorealist to the point of docudrama. The story of a poor fisherman who rebels against exploiters, it was shot on location in Sicily featuring a cast of local non-professionals. Then, with the gorgeous, grandiose and narratively nuts "Senso" (1954), he strayed from realism, neo or otherwise.

With "Rocco," he gave neorealism another try. Reality, though, had changed. Once Visconti might have dreamed that southern peasants would unite with urban proles to make Italy a Marxist paradise. Instead, southerners migrated to northern cities for work and found anomie, corruption, and hostility.

Rocco (Alain Delon) and his four brothers can be seen as elements of the fragmented peasant ideal. The fate of young Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi) is undetermined, and Vincenzo and Ciro (Max Cartier) have been assimilated into the system. So it comes down to Rocco and Simone (Renato Salvatori). The eldest, a brawny boxer and the favorite of Rosaria, Simone has taken up the vices of the city and sunk into dissipation and brutishness. Nonetheless, Rocco, like Alyosha in Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov," has faith in the possibility of redemption.

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The outcome is hardly utopian.

After "Rocco," Visconti's style lost the vestiges of naturalism and indulged in rococo artifice and aristocratic splendor. He abandoned hope for change and focused on the fate of his own class as it sank into decline in "The Leopard" (1963), decadence in "The Damned" (1969), and, in "Death in Venice" (1970), extinction.

½

ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS

Directed by Luchino Visconti.

Written by Visconti, Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosa, and Enrico Medioli. Starring Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Katina Paxinou, Spiros Focás, Max Cartier.

At the Brattle. 180 minutes. Unrated (violence against women, infuriating enabling of a cad). In Italian, with subtitles.


Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.