Life is uncertain and ever-shifting in Luchino Visconti's 1960 masterpiece Rocco and His Brothers, the tale of a family's migration from farm life in southern Italy to Milan — and its near dissolution when faced with the city's temptations. This 4K digital restoration is gorgeous, of course, brightening the corners and steepening the shadows, although the film-minded are right that the new medium's pristine stability comes at some cost: Every print of Rocco and His Brothers I'd ever seen before this was also uncertain and ever-shifting, alive with the light of that day's projection, and worn at the edges by all of those earlier days, too.
So let's not call this fixed, set-like-concrete iteration of Visconti's film a film. As a moving picture, though, it remains one of the greats, and the restored images are as crisp as new money: There are new details to note, like the puffs of steam in the Milan train station in the first scene, or the mists behind the trees in one of the last. But there's so much living to get to in Rocco and His Brothers' sensuous three hours that you might not have time to search out all the painstakingly spruced-up vapor tufts, especially if this is your first time living along with the five brothers of Visconti's Parondi family. Four of the boys (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, though, 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, played by the impossibly beautiful Alain Delon. (In real life, Salvatori married Girardot.) 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.
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, these impulses fuse into consonance: The Parondis' lives are difficult but gorgeous; boxing is terrible but riveting; the city offers everything even as it takes everything away.
Rocco and His Brothers
Starring Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, and Annie Girardot. Directed by Luchino Visconti. 180 minutes. Not rated. Opens Friday, February 19, at Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 786-385-9689; gablescinema.com.