`Brothers' explores life in troubled times


November 23, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In the great Italian filmmaker Francesco Rosi's long-out-of-print masterpiece, Three Brothers (released in the United States in 1982 and due out Tuesday on VHS from Facets Video), Philippe Noiret plays the oldest brother, Raffaele, a self-assured, humanistic judge adjusting to a Rome in which terrorist assassination is an everyday threat. Michele Placido plays Nicola, the youngest brother, a frustrated blue-collar worker from Turin. And Vittorio Mezzogiorno is Rocco, an idealistic supervisor and teacher in a Naples reformatory.

The issues they and their friends argue about - terrorism, capital punishment, workers' rights and the need for charitable protection of society's outcasts - funnel into a larger discussion of whether a nation can be founded on trust and hope rather than force and fear. As domestic terrorism besets and divides them, they wrestle with the same challenge Americans find themselves facing after the onslaught of imported terrorism: preserving a democracy while protecting its citizens and advancing social equality.

Beyond all that, Rosi expands and reshapes Soviet writer Andrei Platonov's short story "The Third Son" to grapple with the overriding question: How are we to live?

In Platonov's seven-page story, six sons scattered all over Russia return to their peasant father's country home to mourn the death of their mother. Caught up in their occupations, they're incapable of comprehending the extent of their father's grief; only at 2 in the morning on the day of burial do they completely give in to their sorrow. At the end, their father is "satisfied and proud that he, too, would be buried by these six powerful men."

Rosi transfers the action from rural Russia to southern Italy, reduces the six brothers to three and transforms them into embodiments of the divisions in Italy's new industrial state. All the brothers' fears and longings spill out in their dreams: the prime wellspring of modern man's spontaneous creativity. But the dreams of the rustic father are different: They're the poetic distillation of a lifetime of feelings and experiences.

Charles Vanel is remarkable as the father. Playing the survivor of an organic, agrarian existence, he manages to seem both dignified and lost in the company of his children.

Rosi's most breathtaking achievement in expanding Platonov's story is expanding the character of the third son's young daughter, who comes with her father to her grandmother's funeral. In the original story, she has the capacity for direct feeling that most of the brothers have lost. That's even truer in the movie, in which she is almost the reincarnation of her grandmother.

Young Marta Zoffoli communicates with her grandfather unself-consciously and moves easily through his world, so unlike the city world she comes from, with its high speed and knowingness. Her modesty and transparency are to the country born. Through her, Rosi says that the instinctual rapport binding together a clan and its homeland never entirely passes out of a family - it may just skip a generation.

Rosi expresses the gap between father and sons in striking visual and temporal terms. From the start, he draws the country town and landscapes with such vibrant textures that we study each passing cloud or stray animal as a possible omen. Yet when the brothers wander through a rural courtyard in confusion and despair, the visual tone turns from elegy to lamentation, and the disturbing perspectives recall de Chirico's famous painting, Melancholy and Mystery of a Street.

Similarly, Rosi draws us into a pastoral conception of time - not as a measure for transacting business, and not merely as an expression of the seasons, but as a drop in the well of eternity. When we see Nicola racing home through the countryside, it's as if he's crashing through time in a compact car. Rosi might have taken his cue from another Platonov short story, in which a character says, "The speeding up of life by prominent people exhausts it, and life loses what it had before."

In Three Brothers, Rosi, to borrow from Platonov, "liberates the contemplative part of one's spirit" with a film that is as heartbreaking as it is provocative.

Benefit screening

City Councilwoman Catherine Pugh will be the host for a screening of Richard Linklater's Tape, starring Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Uma Thurman, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, at the Charles Theatre. Tickets are $5, and the proceeds benefit the Maryland Film Festival. Call 410-752-8083.

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