Friday, July 26, 2013

Three Brothers (Tre Fratelli)

Three Brothers (Tre Fratelli)
Director: Francesco Rosi
Starring: Charles Vanel, Philippe Noiret, Michele Placido, Vittorio Mezzogiorno

Nothing like a death in the family to start out a movie in dreary fashion.  Three Brothers, while not actually depressing, feels like the cinematic equivalent of a sleeping pill.  It’s slow, it’s rather dull, and it made me feel rather woozy and disconnected.  Not, perhaps, its point, but that’s what it did to me.

The death of their mother calls grown sons Raffaele (Noiret), Nicola (Placido), and Rocco (Mezzogiorno) from their modern lives to their ancestral home to aid Donato (Vanel) their elderly father.  Each of them brings their metaphorical baggage as well.  Raffaele, a judge, is being targeted with death threats by terrorists for a case he is considering accepting and it haunts him.  Nicola, a labor organizer, dreams of better conditions for work but also is tortured by his impending divorce.  Rocco is the head of a school for juvenile delinquents.  Feelings of grief but also isolation and disillusionment run rampant for everyone.

How memories and fantasies blend together into the narrative of the film is probably Three Brothers’ strongest attribute.  The death of the mother naturally brings everyone together but also has them reminisce and reflect and dream for what they want in the future.  The flashbacks work very well within the context of the story.  They are brief and clear and emphasize a point.  The memory of Donato, the father, as he recalls a day at the beach with his young wife was particularly touching.  Later in the story, we have some dream sequences as the characters turn their thoughts to the future, and these are equally well done.  Raffaele has nightmares of being shot over his job, Nicola fantasizes of reuniting with his estranged wife, and Rocco dreams of cleaning up the streets and displaced youths of Italy.  Fitting in well, these moments were the highlight of the film for me.  I wish there was more of them.

Why do I wish there was more?  Because the rest of it dull.  Oh my god dull.  I watched Three Brothers on a day when I was tired and ill, and I know from my own experience that I have so much more patience for slow-moving films if I’m tired and less agitated – it’s easier for me to get lost in the world of the film if my brain is less keyed up.  But still I was unable to get wrapped up in the world of Three Brothers that day.  I understand that the film is trying create an attitude, a feeling of sadness, of laconic grief, of that depressing realization that you’re no longer connected to your childhood home, and it does in fact manage to do this rather well.  However, I found myself struggling to stay awake and struggling even harder to focus on the film, and I never, NEVER have trouble staying awake for a movie.  So take it as you will that this one nearly put me to sleep.  It’s desperately slow and nothing really happens. 

Strike that – there is one thing that happens over and over and over again.  Raffaele and Nicola debate politics in every other scene.  Raffaele the judge is calm and even-minded, always seeing both sides of the story, while Nicola the union worker is passionate in his siding with laborers looking for rights.  We get a change of pace when Raffaele debates politics with his old friends down the pub instead of with Nicola.  Oh yes, much different.  Then back to issues with the politics of Raffaele’s job.  Then back to Raffaele and Nicola arguing, because I didn’t get enough of that from the first hour of the film.  No, thank you.

The reason I take issue with this is because of the three brothers in the story, I am least intrigued by Raffaele and Nicola, so to watch them constantly bicker was trying.  Furthermore, I am not terrifically interested in politics.  I keep myself informed well enough, but listening to a film tackle Italian politics of three decades ago is one gigantic snore.  No, it was Rocco I was interested in from the start, Rocco who runs a boys’ school for reform with a sense of sad dignity and acceptance.  And who do we get the absolute least of?  ROCCO.  The film is full to the brim of hot-headed Nicola, constantly yelling and smoking and making speeches.  I don’t care.  I don’t care a jot for Nicola.  The film fleshes out Raffaele nicely, making clear that while he believes strongly in the anti-terrorism cases he’s judging, he’s also fearful of the growing urban violence that threatens his own life.  But Rocco… Rocco gets bupkus.  The title of the film ought to be “Two Brothers,” what with the short shrift that’s given to the neglected bro.  But Rocco fascinated me from the beginning.  We get an early focus on him as we watch him wake up in a small, almost clinical bedroom that is then revealed to be adjacent to a large boys’ dormitory.  We watch him handle the cops with respect, yet still be protective of his boys.  He returns to his father’s home and has a slow contemplative walk along a country path followed by a flashback.  I was sold.  This was the brother I wanted to see develop in the film.  But then Rocco practically disappears.  After that point, it’s all – and I do mean ALL – Raffaele and Nicola, Nicola and Raffaele.  When Rocco finally gets his own fantasy, it feels tacked on, as if the director forgot that Rocco was there and realized they should do something to tie up his plot line.  Which made me sad, because I liked him the most and he was given the least attention.  

I will end by adding that I thought the scenes involving Donato and Nicola’s young daughter were rather lovely.  There was a sense of coming full circle here.  Nicola may feel himself permanently disconnected from his childhood home, but there is a sense of hope as we watch little Marta delightedly explore the farm and bond with Donato.  Not everything was doom and gloom. 

Overall, however, I felt frustrated by this movie.  I wanted more of Rocco, but instead got ridiculously huge portions of Raffaele and Nicola.  The fact that there is no clear plot – this is definitely more of a character study – meant I was bored into a bit of a stupor.  I get the languid emotions, the sense of sadness and loss; I felt them but only superficially.  There is good stuff in Three Brothers, but not enough.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10


  1. Steve recently reviewed this, too. It sounds like I fall between the two of you in what I thought. I didn't like it like he did, but I wasn't bored with it, either.

    I agree that the political talk was uninteresting, especially because it is relevant to only a very short period in Italy's history. The Best of Youth had a lot of politics in it, too, but at least it had interesting characters.

    I actually cared little about all three brothers. It was the grandfather and granddaughter that I wished they had focused on.

    By the way. how did you watch this? It's supposed to be available on DVD, but I waited months for Netflix to send it to me before finally giving up and tracking it down online. Based on that Steve got it through interlibrary loan instead of relying on Netflix.

    1. The grandfather and granddaughter were very sweet together, most definitely, and providing a welcome relief from the crushing sadness of the rest of the story.

      You're spot on with this versus Best of Youth. Both have lots of politics, but I actually CARE about Matteo and Nicola.

      I saw this through DVD on Netflix. I borrowed it over the winter, and I know that the availability of DVDs can change quickly. Sorry you had trouble tracking this one down.

    2. So YOU were the one that had Netflix's DVD for the winter so I couldn't see it. No wonder I had problems. :-)

    3. Yah, probably. I know, I suck. ;)

  2. Yep, I liked this more than the both of you did. I thought there was a lot going on here that was worth my attention. Hey, if we always agreed, what fun would this be?

    1. Not that much fun at all. I liked the memories and fantasy bits; those were very nice and rather lovely.