In Depth

Martin Scorsese on Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers

The film-maker pays tribute to Luchino Visconti, whose cinematic masterpiece Rocco and His Brothers has been restored to its original glory

Luchino Visconti was one of the greatest artists in the history of cinema. He had a fascinating life, which was intertwined with many different strands of European art and culture.

Visconti came from the Milanese branch of one of Europe’s oldest families, whose roots can be traced back to the early 13th century. He might have appeared as a character in one of his own films about the aristocracy, such as Senso or The Leopard – that’s the life he was born into. But at a certain point in the 1930s, his passion for theatre, opera and the cinema set him on a radically different path.

Visconti had a kind of apprenticeship with Jean Renoir and worked as an assistant on some of the pictures he made during the period when he was associated with the French Popular Front – Renoir was actually the one that gave him the idea for his first film, Ossessione, an adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Visconti’s artistic and political lives became almost one and the same – he started making films and directing theatre during the war years, the same period in which he joined the Communist party and worked with the Resistance.

He has often been referred to as a great political artist, but that’s too limiting and frozen a description. His sense of European history was vast and he knew the lives of the rich and powerful first hand – but at a certain point he became drawn to understand the other side of life, that of the poor and powerless. He had a strong sense of the particular manner in which absolutely everyone, from the Sicilian fishermen in his neorealist classic La Terra Trema to the Venetian aristocrats in Senso, was affected by the grand movements of history.

Visconti directed 14 features in his lifetime, each one extraordinary. Some, such as Senso, The Leopard and Rocco e i suoi Fratelli [Rocco and His Brothers], are among the greatest in the history of the art form. Written by Visconti and his long-time collaborator Suso Cecchi D’Amico (along with the contributions of four other writers), Rocco was based on elements of Ghisolfa Bridge by the Milanese writer Giovanni Testori, but it was also inspired by themes found in Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers and Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Visconti follows the fortunes of Rocco (Alain Delon) and his three brothers Simone (Renato Salvatori), Ciro (Max Cartier) and Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi), who travel with their mother (Katina Paxinou) from south to north in search of a better life. Unlike Senso and The Leopard, Rocco was set in the present, which at the time was in the midst of the industrial and economic boom that transformed Italy during the mid-1960s. The picture is about the effects of life in this new world on the family, which gradually comes apart at the seams.

When Rocco and His Brothers came out, in 1960, a lot of people criticised it for what they perceived as emotional excess. It is operatic, as were all of Visconti’s films, but the remarks about excess made no sense to me. Rocco is Italian culture. I grew up in Italian-American culture, but there wasn’t much of a difference. For us – that is, me and my family and my friends – the physical and emotional expressiveness of the characters in the film, Katina Paxinou’s character in particular, seemed like an accurate and only slightly heightened reflection of the life we knew. We all saw that kind of ‘excess’ on a regular basis.

Rocco is one of the most sumptuous black-and-white pictures I’ve ever seen. The images, shot by the great Giuseppe Rotunno, are pearly, elegant and lustrous – it’s like a simultaneous continuation and development of neorealism. Thanks to Gucci and The Film Foundation and our friends at the Cineteca di Bologna, Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece can be experienced once again in all its fearsome beauty and power. 

MARTIN SCORSESE, founder and chair of The Film Foundation, is a director, producer, screenwriter, actor and film historian, and widely regarded as one of the most significant and influential film-makers in cinema history; film-foundation.org

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