Luchino Visconti was both aristocrat and communist, an aesthete and a romantic but also a neorealist concerned with capturing the life of the poor without sentiment. In Rocco and His Brothers, these impulses fuse into consonance. Four of the brothers Parondi (and their widowed, prone-to-wailing mother) turn up unannounced at the Milanese engagement party of the fifth, Vincenzo (Spiros Focás), betrothed to Claudia Cardinale's Ginetta. After the future in-laws meet and bare teeth, dutiful Vincenzo is obliged to find the clan a place to live -- and then to help them land jobs. One of international cinema's most joyous scenes comes not long after that. One morning the brothers leap from their beds, thrilled to see snow out the windows: There's sure to be street-cleaning work! Visconti reveals infinities of feeling in scenes of such intimate bustle and naturalistic choreography.
But one brother, Simone (Renato Salvatori), is reluctant to stir, the first sign of the troubles to come. The second sign is as welcome and miraculous as that snowfall: the arrival of Annie Girardot as a prostitute living a few floors up. Young boxer Simone falls for her, steals for her, lets the family fall into debt for her -- and, in a brutal scene set against the imposing blank concrete façades of Milan's cinderblock apartment buildings, rapes her and beats the hell out of his brother Rocco. Rocco loves Nadia, the prostitute, but Simone has laid claim to her, and Rocco's love is not so great as to trump his loyalty to his family. These three facts seal the fates of these three souls as cleanly and cruelly as a hero's great flaw in Greek tragedy.