Luchino Visconti’s epic melodrama of social migration and moral decay was first released in 1960, when it was met with great scandal (a prosecutor threatened to charge the director with “disseminating an obscene object”) and even greater success. Today, distanced from ridiculous controversy and dislocated from the provincial politics that drive its story, this immaculately restored classic of post-WWII Italian cinema often feels like a new experience altogether.
Set in the early ’60s, when Italy’s moneyed Northern classes were regularly exploiting the people of the South for cheap labor, Visconti’s shaggy tale begins with the hardscrabble Parondi family moving from rural Lucania up to industrial Milan, where recently widowed Rosaria (Katina Paxinou) and her four sons hope to find a better life. “My family arrived like an earthquake,” sighs Vincenzo, the eldest son who’s already in Milan, to his fiancée (a young Claudia Cardinale) after his mother and siblings crash their engagement party and interrupt the first strains of the flowing Nino Rota score that would earn the composer a gig on The Godfather.
From there, Visconti paves the way for rollicking family sagas like 2003’s The Best of Youth, unspooling his tale across three brisk hours and five overlapping chapters, one for each of the Parondi boys. Over time, idealistic Rocco (Delon, magnetic even when dubbed by an actor who pronounces his character’s name as though it were spelled with eight rs), closeted older brother Simone (Salvatori) and local prostitute Nadia (Girardot, sensational) emerge as the true focal points.
Stubbornly attached to the clannish virtues of his father’s generation, Rocco can’t help but forgive Simone even his most violent transgressions—including Nadia’s brutal semipublic rape—as his moral absolutism rots into something perverse as he tries to hold the family together. Watching the film so far removed from the time of its making underlines the tragedy of Rocco’s anachronistic nature and compensates for the increasing clumsiness of Visconti’s more topical subplots. “The world’s a one-way street,” Girardot’s character blithely declares, but Rocco still can’t see that he’s speeding toward a dead end.
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