Francesco Rosi’s film Three Brothers would be better appreciated if we refer and compare the film to the short story (the translation is freely available on the Internet) that inspired the unassuming but powerful cinematic work. An old man goes to a telegraph office and sends a telegram to his sons—“Mother dead. Come home. Father.” In the short story there are six sons. In Rosi’s film, Three Brothers, there are only three. Both in the written work and in the film, the sons return to their rural home to attend the burial of their mother, after a long absence from their parent's home. The film’s plot could appear to center around the return of the three sons for the mother’s funeral but Rosi’s film offers much, much more in terms of social, political and existential commentary, relevant today as it was when it was made way back in 1981.
The film was inspired by a short story called The Third Son by the Russian novelist Andrei Platonov, a work that found an admirer in, among other literary peers, Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway won the Nobel Prize, Platonov never did. Yet Platonov achieved a unique distinction after his death: a minor planet discovered by a Soviet astronomer was named after him.
In Russia, Platonov’s fame yo-yoed with the vagaries of the Stalinist regime. The once celebrated writer toward the end of his life is reported to have eked out a living by sweeping the streets. It is ironic that the novelist wrote in a letter a decade before his death “If my brother Mitya, or Nadya, were to come back out of the grave, adolescents as they were when they died, and were to look at me to see what has become of me... I have become a monster, mutilated both inside and outside. "Andrei, is that really you?" Yes, it's me-I've been through a lot” The anguish Andrei Platonov expresses with those lines was captured somewhat in his short story. The residual impact of that feeling comes through in the Rosi film as the lives of three sons are dissected. (Ironically, one of Platonov’s best known satirical novels The foundation pit was only published 25 years after his death.)
Few filmgoers are aware that two famous films—Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s Maria’s Lovers (USA) and Alexander Sukurov’s The Lonely Human Voice (former USSR) were both based on another Platonov short story to be found in the collection of his short stories called The River Potudian. Konchalovsky's film surprisingly did not mention Platonov's name in the credits.
It is not surprising that Rosi found the Platonov short-story The Third Son ideally suited for adaptation to the Italian environs in the early Eighties. The similarities were considerable—the rural Italians are staunch Catholics and the rural Soviets equally staunch followers of the Russian Orthodox Church. One endured the brutality of Mussolini, the other of Stalin. Both the Russian and Italian communities are traditionally strong votaries of family bonding and the institution of marriage. Rosi’s obvious and natural collaborator was the legendary screenplay writer Tonino Guerra to develop the Italian tale. Guerra had worked with Antonioni and Fellini, but more importantly was an ardent admirer of Russian legendary filmmakers Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Parajanov. Barely two years after Rosi’s film was made, Guerra collaborated with Tarkovsky on the celebrated Nostalgia. made by self-exiled Tarkovsky in Italy.
Rosi and Guerra make the transition from the Russian short story to the Italian context seamlessly. The film begins and ends just as the short story does. Both have the transmission of the telegram by the father (a fascinating performance by the late French actor Charles Vanel, in the film). The father of three sons living in rural Italy summons his sons living in different Italian cities, apparently not in touch with each other for years. The second son brings his daughter, Marta, along (in the short story, the third of the six brothers brings his daughter to the funeral). The film ends just as the short story does, the sons carry the coffin to the grave, while their father and grand-daughter stay behind in the house. Death of their mother brings the three brothers together, while the widower gets to bond with his loving grandchild.
Interestingly for Platonov, Rosi and Guerra, the family bonding is fragile between father and sons but it grows rapidly between father and grandchild. Rosi’s film explores the visual parallels provided by simple actions—a young wife (the dead mother of the sons) playing in the sand and her young grandchild playing in the heaps of harvested grain--separated by time. Quite in contrast to the halcyon days in the lives of the father and his wife Rosi and Guerra paint the fragile marriages of two sons and a third who is not interested in committing himself to a marriage but instead finds succor in a “marriage” to social work. None of the three sons are bad individuals. One is a respected judge (the late Philippe Noiret), another a social worker, and the third a factory employee desiring a better deal for his colleagues from the management. While Platonov’s story tried to mask the author’s disenchantment with Stalinist Russia, Rosi and Guerra built the anguish of Italy in the early Eighties, judges trying to be impartial while handing out sentences often at the cost of their lives and careers, civil society battling the effects of rampant abuse of drugs, guns and money on the younger population, and the growing power of trade unions in the manufacturing sector.
Rosi and Guerra present four dreams in the film, one of the father and three each of the sons. The father recalls his young wife losing her wedding ring and how they retrieve it. The most successful of the brothers, a respected judge and an idealist, dreams of being assassinated while his estranged wife is truly worried that he could be, if he continues with his official work. The social worker, another idealist, who initial dream opens the film of rats hunting for food (implying the social rot) against a dreary concrete wall of a tall building with gaps for windows (implying progress), progresses to dream a surrealist one where drugs, guns, and money are swept away for good and set on fire. Another brother is also an idealist wanting to procure a fair deal for the workers in a factory and dreams of fixing his marriage as he tries to reach out to his separated wife in the city. All the sons dream on beds on which they have now overgrown, quite in contrast to the father who sleeps with his grand daughter on a giant bed without the burden of idealism but love for his family, his home and the gratifying reunion of the family through the death of his wife. The visual metaphors are stacked up for the viewer to pick up and savor.
The film’s cinematographer Pasqualino de Santis has not just worked with Rosi on his finest works, but also with Visconti, Zeffirelli, and Bresson on theirs. There is a lovely shot captured by de Santis and Rosi as one brother views his two siblings at different heights from a window at a height. Who is morally superior to whom? Little or nothing is spoken but the visuals speak loudly of what seems to concern each person in the frame.
Sometimes Guerra’s words take over from the camera—as when one a brother visits a neighbor’s house to be shown a fig tree and comments that the tree appears to be smaller than what he recalled. The neighbor’s reply is laconic but figurative “It is you who have grown big.”
For those who have seen Tarkovsky’s first film Ivan’s childhood, one would wonder whether Guerra who was an admirer and collaborator of Tarkovsky, was replicating the shots in Three Brothers as de Santis’ camera follows the young girl Marta as she explores her grandfather’s house.
Similarly there is another dream of war ravaged villagers putting up their hands in abject surrender to a menacing tank rolling towards them. Allied soldiers emerge from the tank only to embrace the villagers with the words “We too are Italians!” Rosi’s film is not somber throughout it has its patches of mellow humor. In one of the most beautiful parts of the film, the dead grandmother teaches her husband how to catch a hare by its ears.
The film is a paean to rich values of rural life that urban folks miss out on. It is a tale that harks back to traditions. The urban brothers are not at peace with themselves, while in contrast the village folks seem to be reconciled with what they have and are happy, even if it appears that they are left behind by their lovers and spouses. The final shots of the film show two rings on the father’s ring finger, the second being the ring worn by his dead wife.
Rosi needs to be credited for spotting the story and roping the talented actors, the scriptwriter and the cinematographer for this deceptively charming movie with a subject that has considerable depth beyond the obvious story line. I found this film to be one of Rosi's finest works rubbing shoulders with his later work Christ Stopped at Eboli.
Platonov's work throws up discomfiting questions at its readers, and Rosi's film goes even further. Platonov's story asked us to look at simple joys and familial relationships that one seemed to have forgotten. His story questioned misplaced idealism wrecking individual lives in a dysfunctional political environment. Rosi and Guerra go further as they present similar questions on the Italian political and social environment of the day, presented through each brother. The film offers a possible humanist closure without delving much into religion, a prime facet of Italian life. But look closely and you will find the undercurrent of religion pervading the film, much more openly than in the Platonov story.
Many film goers tend to discount the value of a literary work when the film itself is arguably awesome in technique and content. But can we truly discount the inspirational literary works that contributed to major works such as Terrence Mallick’s The Thin Red Line or Andrei Zyyagintsev’s The Banishment, especially when those filmmakers seem to considerably depart from the original works of James Jones and William Saroyan?
To quote a few lines from Platonov’s The Third Son: "The third son suddenly straightened up, put his arm in the darkness and reached for the edge of the coffin, but he could not hold on to it and only shoved it a little to one side on the table, as he fell to the floor. His head hit the floorboards, but the son did not make a sound—only his daughter screamed." While it quite true that no such scene appears in the Rosi film, can we deny that Rosi, Guerra and de Santis did succeed in capturing the same spirit of Platonov’s short story in their film Three Brothers?
(P.S. In 1981, this film made the final nomination list for the Best Foreign film Oscar but did not win the statuette.)