The Parondi family consists of matriarch Rosaria and five sons: Rocco (Delon), Vincenzo, Simone, Ciro, and Luca. At the start of the film the rest of the family is leaving impoverished Sicily to join Vincenzo, who is already in Milan, and has gotten engaged to the lovely Ginetta.
Rosaria had imagined that she and her sons would move in with Vincenzo, and is unpleasantly surprised to find that Vincenzo is living with Ginetta's family and there is no room for them. She and her other four sons get a shabby basement room, and the men look for work. Into their lives comes Nadia, a prostitute who seeks shelter with the Parondis after her father throws her out. Simone falls head over heels for her. The pressure of struggling to survive in the big city, as well as Simone's mad passion for Nadia, threatens to tear the family apart.
Claudia Cardinale, then just on the cusp of international superstardom, has a small role as Ginetta.
- Big "NO!": Rocco lets loose with a "NO!!!!" scream after Simone admits to murdering Nadia.
- Cain and Abel: The dynamic between Rocco and Simone. Simone is offended at Rocco's moral quality and keeps doing stuff to tempt his brother to degrade him up to murdering Nadia. Ciro, the younger brother is the one who takes responsibility and turns Simone into the police for his crime.
- Chiaroscuro: Lots of this, like in the moodily lit, shadowy scene where the boxing promoter walks through a dim hallway to meet the brothers, and offer Simone boxing work. This is likely to foreshadow that going into boxing is a bad idea for Simone.
- Country Mouse: The Parondis, dirt poor country folk from Sicily, struggle to make it in Milan.Rocco: I'm lost in the city. I was neither born nor raised in one.
- Crucified Hero Shot: Nadia's arms are outstretched when Simone murders her.
- Dirty Coward: The anonymous john who runs away as Simone assaults Nadia.
- Disposable Sex Worker: Nadia is a prostitute and she is murdered by Simone in a deserted place where she met her customers. Deconstructed, because she is an important character and her death is important for the protagonists. Rocco, in particular, is devastated when he hears of her death.
- Drowning My Sorrows: After his boxing career foundered and Nadia left him, Simone becomes an alcoholic.
- Easily Forgiven: Simone. Rocco puts up with a lot of degradation and abuse and keeps pardoning his brother for stuff that he really shouldn't condone, such as raping Nadia, and then telling her to go back and live with her rapist because he feels that it was wrong of him to "steal" his brother's girl. At the end, after finding out that Simone killed Nadia, Rocco still wants to help him. Only Ciro has the moral courage to turn Simone in for murder.
- Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Simone is foolish: he has the opportunity to pursue a boxing career, but he does not work hard enough. He is distracted by his love affair with Nadia. His brothers are responsible: Vincenzo is determined to integrate into Milan and to support his family. Rocco works hard to succeed as a boxer, even if he does not like boxing. Ciro attends evening classes to become a skilled worker.
- A Friend in Need: Rocco keeps on helping his brother Simone. He covers up the theft of a jewel. After Simone rapes Nadia, he breaks up with Nadia and tells her to make up with Simone. After Simone robs Morini, Rocco signs a long-term contract in order to get enough money to pay Morini back. Even after Simone murders Nadia, Rocco still wants to cover up his crime.
- Heroic Sacrifice: After Simone rapes Nadia, the woman he loved, Rocco breaks up with Nadia and tells her to make up with Simone. After Simone robs Morini, Rocco signs a long-term contract in order to get enough money to pay Morini back (so he will have to keep on boxing for years, even if he does not like it).
- If I Can't Have You...: It's only after Nadia decisively rejects him that Simone pulls the knife.
- An Immigrant's Tale: Within the same country. The Parondis come from Lucania, in Southern Italy, and they migrate to Milan. They have to cope with life in a big city.
- It's All About Me: After telling Rocco that he murdered the woman Rocco loved, Simone says "But don't you worry, no one saw me."
- Jaded Washout: Simone becomes a successful boxer, but he does not work hard enough, so his career soon founders and he becomes a jobless alcoholic.
- Kitchen Sink Drama: A poor family fight to survive and stay together in an uncaring big city.
- Literary Allusion Title: The title alludes to Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers.
- Match Cut: From Rocco fighting in the boxing ring to Simone assaulting Nadia. Even comes with Rocco's boxing coach telling him to "cover up" his face, followed by Simone telling Nadia to "cover up" with a coat after he's pulled her dress off.
- Messianic Archetype: Rocco sacrifices all he has to save his brother. Simone slowly becomes a criminal. He rapes Nadia and he beats the crap out of Rocco. In the end, he even murders Nadia. However, Rocco always wants to help him. After the rape, he gives up Nadia's love. Then, he signs a long-term boxing contract to pay Simone's debts. After the murder of the woman he loved, he still wants to save his brother.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: After raping Nadia, Simone beats the crap out of Rocco.
- Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Ends with Luca walking away from the Alfa Romeo factory, after telling Ciro to come home.
- The One Who Made It Out: There is tension in the family between Vincenzo who first married a non-Sicilian and attempts to assimilate into Northern Italy and the rest who are traditionalists. In the end Ciro, and little Luca, decides to follow in Vincenzo's footsteps and avoid the fate of Rocco and Simone.
- Onscreen Chapter Titles: The film is divided into five chapters, named after the five Parondi brothers: Vincenzo, Simone, Rocco, Ciro and Luca.
- Rape as Drama: Simone rapes Nadia and, from this point, things go from bad to worse for Nadia and the Parondis.
- Real-Place Background: The film is shot on location in Milan, a city in which Visconti's aristocratic ancestors had much influence over the decades. Notably the scene where Vincenzo and Nadia are walking around Milan features a prominent church in the background, this church was indeed patronized and built by Visconti's ancestors.
- Sibling Triangle: Rocco and his brother Simone are both in love with Nadia.
- Slap-Slap-Kiss: The middle-aged owner of the laundry where Rocco works is enraged when Simone comes in, admits to stealing one of her shirts, and then asks to get it washed. She slaps him. Then they have a passionate embrace, followed by a Sexy Discretion Shot.
- Supporting Protagonist: Despite being in the title, Rocco is a passive figure to the family, and the real dramatic and dynamic characters are Simone and Nadia.
- Spiritual Successor: Visconti admitted that Rocco is a sequel-in-spirit of La Terra Trema, his drama about a family of Sicilian fisherman crushed by Northern businesses encroaching on their way of life. This film shows the family going North and trying, and failing, to assimilate.
- Voiceover Letter: The "Rocco" section of the movie starts with Rocco getting a Voiceover Letter from his mom in which she catches him up on events while he's been away in the army.
- Whole Plot Reference: The love-triangle between Rocco-Simone-Nadia was inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Idiot with Rocco as a Myshkin-like good-guy, Simone as Rogozhin, and Nadia based on Nastasya.