The following is an essay on Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece Rocco and his Brothers, comparing it to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. It might only be of interest if you have both seen the film and read the novel, both of which I highly recommend.
The love triangle, the struggle between good and evil and the alienation of the individual in society have played a big part in literature and art throughout the centuries. Few artists dealt with these issues as eloquently and honestly as Fidor Dostoyevsky and it is little wonder that his writing has had so much influence on all genres of art. This influence is very apparent in Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers, which although is based on a story by Verga, contains many of the plot and character elements found in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Even though Rocco and his Brothers and The Idiot are from very different societies and eras, each presents a delicate and moving story that transcends time and culture.
There is a striking similarity between Prince Myshkin in The Idiot and Rocco, the protagonist of Visconti’s film. Because of their honesty and selflessness, each reminds us of the figure of Jesus Christ. A similar comparison can be made between Nastasya Filippovna and Nadia, who represent the stereotype of the fallen woman, shunned and rejected by society. Each in their turn is offered redemption by the protagonist, but in neither case is the woman “saved”. Both Visconti and Dostoyevsky were concerned with the emptiness of private relationships, and this is evident in the pitiful pairings we find in their works. The relationships of Nastasya Filippovna and the Prince and of Rocco and Nadia, are doomed from the start, neither couple is able to withstand the circumstances in which they find themselves. Finally, there is the element of tragedy in Rocco and his Brothers and The Idiot which surrounds the characters and the plot.
Both Rocco and Prince Myshkin seem to be inherently good. They are overly trustworthy and forgiving, seeking only to placate the tumultuous environment in which they find themselves. They are the peace keepers and the upholders of good, and each has an “evil” counterpart; Rogozhin and Simone. Both are thought to be simple minded by society. The Prince is often told that he is an idiot and that his position in society must be governed by his mental simplicity. Rocco too, is sometimes characterized in the same way in Rocco and his Brothers. The only time that we see Rocco at work, his female coworkers have fun at his expense and he does not object or defend himself in anyway. He is called “a sleeping beauty”, and is accused of not being able to read. Regardless, they appear to enjoy his company so much that we are led to think that no matter how confused the orders at the dry cleaners became, Rocco would not loose his job. Prince Myshkin, likewise, is welcomed in the Yepanchin house and they even are even insulted when he does not visit on a regular basis. Very often though, the Prince fulfills the same role as a court jester or entertainer. He is often asked questions only so that they can be scrutinized and rejected as those of a simpleton.
One might think that the characters are excessively cruel in their treatment of Rocco and the Prince, but there is another, far more important reason why both are so welcome and indeed almost cherished: their saintly goodness. Both are completely selfless and honest, and the Prince especially understands and accepts the role that he plays. They are recognized as such and in the depravity that surrounds them they stand out as beacons of hope. The Prince is willing to compromise his position in society and marry Nastashya. He knows that he is obligated to marry and he feels that his marriage (in which he little interest), should at least enable Nastasya to elevate her position. In a way he wants to save her from depravity with his goodness, in the same way that Jesus saved Mary Magdalene from being stoned to death. Rocco, likewise feels pity for Nadia and instills in her a feeling of hope. “You can do whatever you want with your life. Have faith in yourself and don’t be afraid,” he says to her and we can not help think that is possibly the only time that she is encouraged to change the course of her life. The Prince and Rocco are the type of people that are capable of enabling others to find truth and strength.
People gravitate to these two Christ like figures because in the surrounding chaos of everyday life their outlooks are refreshing and filled with hope, at least initially. On the surface they might be “simpletons”, but the message they bring across is far more profound and inviting than any of the other characters. They are both struggling for acceptance in new, alien worlds and their observations, albeit seemingly childish are starkly honest and truthful. Their pedestilic goodness, however, is the cause of their downfall in society and their inability to come to understand the women in their lives. Rocco tells Nadia that she must go back to his brother, Simone, because he needs her for his salvation. In a sense he forces her into a martyr-like mission that he himself accepts daily. He throws away his own chance at happiness with her to aid his brother’s redemption. Nadia, then rather than fulfilling the role that Rocco hoped she would, sinks back into a state of depravity, perversity and hopelessness.
In The Idiot, the Prince does not force Nastasya away, in the same manner. He is ready to accept the wrath of Rogozhin to make her happy, but at the same time this action has little to do with his own needs. She, however runs off from her wedding at the last moment leaving the Prince at the alter. There is seemingly no reason why she should have wanted to turn away her only opportunity for bettering her position. It is possible, though that the Prince’s goodness was too excessive for her and she had difficulty accepting his support.
There is a distinctive similarity between Nastasya Filippovna and Nadia. They are both women who are outside of mainstream society and illustrate the difficulty of independent women in patriarchal society. They have no other means for survival other then the exploitation of men, which spirals them further away from social acceptance. The audience is moved to pity these women, in a similar way as with the Prince and Rocco, because they too demonstrate alienation from society. Unlike Vincenzo’s wife, Ginetta, and Aglaya Yepanchin, they have no support system on which to fall back upon, no family to take care of them and secure a place in society for them. They are in every sense fallen women in relation to other female characters. Nastasya is one of the first fully independent female characters in the Russian literary tradition. She is in control of her life and holds a power over male society thought impossible at that time. She is also an outcast for this reason, and is referred to by more esteemed members of society as “that awful woman”. She has far less power over her fate, however than Ginetta, living in an era more completely dominated by patriarchal control. .
Nadia is also a fallen woman but manages for a brief time to redeem herself and elevate above her status as a prostitute. She too is considered an outcast and like Nastasya her condemnation by society is severe. We see her being chased out of an apartment and later on in the film, thrown in jail. Through their struggles both women prove to be extremely strong characters, very self willed and undying of spirit. They both however meet with the same tragic end, death by stabbing. In the end they are both unable to attain a more desirable status and are destroyed by the society against which they are battling. .
Rocco and his Brothers, like The Idiot, also has an Aglaya-like character. Ginetta is semi-rebellious, willing to risk the anger of her family to see her lover secretly against their wishes. Although she is not as central to the plot as Aglaya is in The Idiot, she fulfills the same role. She epitomizes the average woman in society, safe in her position and protected by her family. Aglaya is a striking contradiction to Nastasya; she is spoiled and is allowed to deviate somewhat from the norm. She plays games with The Prince and other men of lower class, but she always remains within the boundaries of her society. She has the spirit of independence within her, but is not strong or willing enough to break with those rules. Ginetta, likewise breaks some minor rules, but never enough to compromise her position. They have more options available to them, and even though they do not submit to society as fully as is demanded of them, they retain their status as proper women.
The stories of Rocco and the Prince are both very tragic ones, commentating and criticizing the societies out of which they are respectively born. Rocco and his Brothers and The Idiot are from different cultures and eras, but they both point to the human tragedy of individual isolation that perseveres throughout the centuries. All the characters seem to wander in the ether of an destructive and depressing world. Hope is lost and the individual spirit destroyed. Rocco and the Prince seem to be the only characters that have the ability to overcome this social oppression, but in they end they too loose freedom. At the end of Rocco and his Brothers, Rocco is forced into a ten year boxing contract in order to help his brother out of debt. In The Idiot, the Prince has a epileptic seizure so severe that he must once again return to Switzerland for treatment, with no hope of ever becoming integrated into the society from which he so much desires acceptance.
Rocco and the Prince battle in their own gentle way the conformities of society and attempt to find a position for themselves within its framework. Neither succeed and this paints a very dark portrait of the individual’s place in the world, regardless of culture. It seems as though the fight for self assertion and self fulfillment is one that transcends the boundaries of time and place. Visconti borrowed many ideas from Dostoyevsky, but even when transcribed into 20th century Italy, none of these seem out of place.
Both author and filmmaker were social commentators, and in placing the main character in a position versus mainstream society, they open up a forum of debate on a very human level. Although Rocco and Prince Myshkin are almost “too good to be true,” they are so endearing that it is impossible to remember either of them without genuine pity. They seem to represent the archetype of perfection that many of us wish we could achieve, maybe not so much in terms of saintliness as in terms of self assertion. Dostoyevsky criticizes society as a whole for not being able to accept a man such as the Prince, whereas Visconti seems to emphasize the loss of the individual to the machine of society and the inability of people like Rocco, with all their best intentions, to fit in. In both cases the main emphasis is on the individual against society.
There are other similarities between The Idiot and Rocco and his Brothers, similarities in style that exist outside of characterization and plot, but lie somewhere in the realm of impressions. Many of the important and plot decisive scenes in The Idiot, that generally only concern a few of the main characters, are interrupted by a chaotic chorus of drunks, nihilists, retired army officers, in short a motley crew “distinguished not only by its diversity but also by its perversity,” who materialize out of nowhere and become a vital part of the action. It seems that characters are rarely left alone and that visitors usually arrive in hoards. In Rocco and his Brothers the only scene with less than a dozen characters is the murder scene towards the end. All the other scenes occur against a backdrop of human action and presence. This emphasizes the individuals dependence on society, because it seems as though with every important decision, there is an audience waiting to comment or pass judgment.
Both Rocco and his Brothers and The Idiot are very involving. They are melodramatic, yet so realistic and reflective of life, that any reader or viewer is inadvertently drawn into the story. Dostoyevsky sucks his audience into the world of the novel because all his characters are related to one another and somehow involved in the main drama. There in no single character that is able to elevate above the others and offer a different perspective on the enfolding drama. The reader is placed in such close proximity to the story and the characters that it is difficult to escape the tangled web of the novel. In Rocco and his Brothers there is a similar pattern. Nadia is introduced to the Parondi family by Vincenzo, then becomes Simone’s lover and finally becomes romantically involved with Rocco. In the end, Ciro is in a sense left to “pick up the pieces” and is singular in his happiness. Finally he passes on the legacy to the youngest brother, Luca. By dividing the film into five intertwined episodes, each focusing on one of the brothers, Visconti emphasizes the Parondi family.