At this point, Rocco and His Brothers is considered a cinema classic (#170 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time). It is sprawling in more ways than one, running almost three hours and broken into five segments, one for each brother, blending an operatic feeling with the tail end of Italian neo-realism (there is a lot of Rocco in Mean Streets). Roger Ebert wrote, "It is a combination that should not work, but does, between operatic melodrama and seamy social realism, which at no point in its 177-minute running time seem to clash, although they should. We buy the whole overwrought package, the quiet truth, the flamboyant excess, even the undercurrent of homoeroticism that Visconti never quite reconciles. The excitement of the film is that so much is happening, in so many different ways, all struggling to find a fusion."
It's an accurate description of the film, but for me, the absence of reconciliation between the various parts of the package, the inability to "find a fusion", brings Rocco and His Brothers down a notch. There are individual scenes of great power, but there is also an imbalance of tone that Visconti can't or won't overcome. Alain Delon is once again the most beautiful thing on the screen (he was 25), and if you want to be kind you can say he effectively underplays his part. I'm never sure if Delon is acting, and while his prettiness makes up for a lot, it doesn't add depth to his character. Katina Paxinou is over the top as Mamma, close to stereotype as the Italian mother who reacts emotionally to everything, yelling and crying. I found myself wishing she would quit turning up on the screen.
Annie Girardot, on the other hand, is the best thing about the movie. She plays a whore who gets involved with two of the brothers, and her character is just as much a stereotype as Mamma. But Girardot shows the human side of her character, and Visconti gives her room. Paxinou is brought down by the stereotype ... Girardot overcomes it. She is so good, she even rises above an unfortunate rape subplot.
Rocco and His Brothers is influential, expansive, full of wonderful moments. It falls short for me ... I much prefer The Leopard. But that shouldn't diminish the real accomplishments of Rocco.