Arrow Video: Three Brothers (1981) - Reviewed

Francesco Rosi was already considered among his contemporaries to be one of the finest Italian filmmakers in cinema history.  Having won the coveted Palme d’Or in 1972 for The Mattei Affair as well as two Golden Lion Awards for Lifetime Achievement and his beloved 1963 classic Hands Over the City, Rosi mixed Italian neorealism with a distinctively cinematic narrative evoking human warmth, pathos, tragedy and transcendence.  His bullfighting thriller The Moment of Truth was as nerve wracking and visually stunning as anything in Henri Georges-Clouzot’s oeuvre and his Sicilian gangster epic Salvatore Guiliano cemented the filmmaker as a formidable director ready to dive headfirst into the dusty and rocky Roman and Sicilian trenches to get as close to his subject as technically possible.  It was only a matter of time before Rosi would garner his first and only Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 1981 for his poignant, somber and reflectively funereal Three Brothers.

After the death of an elderly matriarch in southern Italy, her three sons who have taken on vastly different walks of life including judge Raffaele (Philippe Noiret), correctional counselor Rocco (Vittorio Mezzogiorno) and factory worker Nicola (Michele Placido) are summoned by their father Donato (Charles Vanel of The Wages of Fear) to return for her funeral procession.  Cross-cutting between the trio who are mutually unhappy and face their own respective hardships while being buoyed by a sentimental thread involving their father and Nicola’s daughter, the film is an often somber, tragicomic tale mixing dream and memory, fantasy and reality to create a headspace cloaking these people as they come to grips with their mother’s passing.  Aided by gifted, heartfelt performances from all involved, utilizing the barren countryside Roman locations to their fullest effect and anchored down by a melancholy score by Pino Daniele and Piero Piccioni, the experience of watching Rosi’s film is akin to walking the long and winding roads of grief, closure and absolution. 

Often deeply moving and spiritually satisfying, Three Brothers is a paean to nostalgia, yearning for what was once held sacred now withering with age and time.  Some of the film’s most affecting moments involve Vanel’s Donato whose craggy face exudes sadness and yearning all the while trying to maintain composure in the face of an innocent granddaughter unable to fully grasp the situation.  Elements of the finale are indeed politicized, drawing a link to Rosi’s prior work and some of the fantasy sequences including a band of school kids brooming away heroin needles echo the surrealism of Federico Fellini.  And yet the overall impression one comes away with is no matter what trajectories our lives take, it all comes back to our upbringing and the pain of losing a loved one.  Like Akira Kurosawa, fans of Rosi will indeed notice a slower pace than his more youthful work from the 1960s and the feeling and tone is that of an older man looking back on his life with humility and wisdom.  While not the easiest film to recommend to most viewers or newcomers to Rosi, I myself was moved and reminded me of every instance where I’ve ever lost a sibling, friend or loved one to the sands of time.

- Andrew Kotwicki