puffin’s review published on Letterboxd:
Bombastic and incredibly detailed in how many characters and arcs intertwine and clash, Rocco and His Brothers is an epic in the grandest sense. Burdened by what came before, broken by the present, and hopeful for the future, the complexity of motivation and of so many lives running separately instead of simply pausing for the main story, this level of depth in comradery and its partial collapse is so exceptional because of how alive everything and everyone feels. Amidst the intimidating and concrete landscape are characters building and breaking themselves, as well as others. The care in its detail, the care in bringing not just its leading cast to life but also those who are even so much as indirectly involved. Like The Godfather or A Brighter Summer Day in the following decades, it takes time both to set the atmosphere and also give every participant their time to think, to breathe, better explaining how they might act under pressure before it happens. And as such, it's difficult to place characters under simple roles or explanations, but rather they exist to be sympathetic additions to the story at large. It is a film of many seemingly incidental details, all obviously purposeful, but Luchino Visconti hides this so well that they feel like they are there simply because it was a part of their own path in life and in family.
With a story so gripping, it's easy to let the film roll by without comment on its filmmaking. But when stepping back and acknowledging those technical aspects, it's as much an achievement in direction as it is in screenwriting. Visconti balances each plotline engagingly and comfortably, never letting characters or moments get lost amidst so much already happening. On a visual level Visconti is also tremendously ambitious. My personal favorite technique is how often he blocks the sides of the frames during more intimate moments, which lets the genuine moments needing wide and expansive shots form simply by removing those natural and subtle blocks. He also has always done well with lighting, especially shooting actual light sources in a distant and large fashion I don't see many directors try. Obviously his most iconic use of this was with the boats in La Terra Trema, but the boxing in this film for example is another terrific use of large light sources amidst surrounding darkness.
And its influence is unsung by most newer film fans, unfortunately being overshadowed in favor of the few foreign-language classics that even reach a mainstream platform anymore (Seven Samurai, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Das Boot, Bicycle Thieves...). It's strange this film is left out of the conversation considering it's shorter than half of them, as accessible as most of them, and had direct influence on some of film's most iconic greats, most notably Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. I'm not asking for this film to replace anything, but when people expect to find a sea of boredom and pretension beneath the few foreign classics they watch and enjoy, I hope those moments of curiosity bring them here.
Lastly, the film's performances are notably closer to overacting than most other films that pride themselves on being grounded and realistic. I don't see this as a detraction of its realism, but instead an expression of emotion exaggerated to its most intense without going into just complete hysterical expressionism. It works because Visconti builds these extreme emotions to be extremely warranted, and anything less than what these performers deliver might feel like they're underselling the feeling of the situation. Certainly a more subdued cast could have done the film just as well, but I have no issues with the current situation. Between so many phenomenal performances, with Alain Delon's vulnerability, Annie Girardot's determination, and Katina Paxinou's passion all being highlights. However my personal favorite comes from Renato Salvatori, who delivers some of the most telling and haunting stares of any film. The man, and the film's entire cast for that matter, are so lost in character that it feels strange imagining them on set or after the cameras would stop rolling. I guess that's part of why it's so engrossing. Even someone as iconic as Alain Delon, for the film's three hour running time, I can't imagine him playing anyone else.
With three hours so tightly knit and viciously intense, not many journeys resemble that of Rocco and His Brothers. Not the work it may have been inspired by, nor the work that was eventually inspired by it. It's a film where runtime stops being a consideration altogether due to its brilliant way of immersing its viewers. More than simply being operatic, it gives the exaggerated emotions a purpose that makes even its most heightened feelings justified and understandable. It's hard to lose focus on the film, its eerie and empty streets of threatening concrete apartments, and the people you dare to care for.