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.
- Dirty Coward: The anonymous john who runs away as Simone assaults Nadia.
- 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.
- If I Can't Have You...: It's only after Nadia decisively rejects him that Simone pulls the knife.
- 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."
- 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 (and losing) 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Stuffed into the Fridge: Nadia gets raped, abused, and finally killed, mostly to provide dramatic tension between Rocco and Simone.
- 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.