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There are few male porn performers as famous as Rocco Siffredi, so it was only a matter of time before someone would make a documentary about the “Italian Stallion”. The result, simply called Rocco, was directed by French duo Thierry Demaiziere and Alban Teurlai and is a frequently fascinating and beautifully crafted work that tries to paint a nuanced picture of the man himself and, to an extent, the industry in which he worked (he’s now retired as an actor).
Well-received at its Venice Film Festival premiere, this illuminating piece of work should travel both the general festival and the non-fiction circuits and has an outside chance of some theatrical action even beyond France and Italy. General TV sales, however, will be more problematic, given the subject and sheer number of penises — pointing any which way — onscreen.
The film opens, as it must, with a shot of Siffredi’s most-filmed asset: his prized nether regions. But Demaiziere and Teurlai are very smart about how they present the shot: There’s a slow fade-in from black to the image, which is dominated by hues of dark gray and blue, as Siffredi takes a shower and soap and water run off his toned body. The shot is beautiful and not directly sexual, setting the right tone and suggesting the right mindset for what’s to come.
The film follows Siffredi — actually called Rocco Tano; the surname was inspired by Roch Siffredi, Alain Delon’s character in Borsalino — over the course of roughly the last year he would star in pornographic films. The directors were given access to the actor-director-producer across the globe and their camera, handled by Teurlai, follows him in Budapest, where Siffredi lives with his wife and two sons and he runs a porn production company, to shoots in California and both public appearances and private visits in Italy.
When doing castings for his own movies, it’s very clear there’s a flirty chemistry with the potential female leads, with neither Siffredi nor the girls showing much in terms of inhibitions even when they’re not filming. What’s perhaps more surprising (and reassuring) is that the actor-director seems to constantly make sure that everyone who works with him is aware of the likes but especially the limits of his co-performers. His on-screen porn persona might enjoy things rough and hard but the Rocco that emerges from the behind-the-camera footage here is first and foremost a considerate and sensitive man who takes his job very seriously.
Gabriele Galetta, Rocco’s very similar-looking cousin who had a short-lived career as a porn performer that was cut short by erection-on-demand problems, now handles the camera duties on Siffredi’s films. He also frequently comes up with crazy ideas for lead-ins to sex scenes, which more than occasionally causes friction between the two. When Galetta seems only halfway through an explanation of a very complicated-sounding set-up, Rocco fires off a very astute: “Yes but when do they f—?”. Clearly, Demaiziere and Teurlai aren’t interested in making a polite hagiographic biography, though neither do they treat porn as a sleazy or amoral business. It is just that, a business.
Because the editing — also by Teurlai — is sharp, a picture emerges of the cousins’ complex and co-dependent rapport even though neither of them really admits how they feel about each other on camera. Working in Rocco’s long shadow, Galetta sometimes seems frustrated and envious of his cousin’s success while at other times, he’s living vicariously through him. By paying attention to someone with dreams similar to Rocco’s but who didn’t have the same stamina or reach the same level of stardom, Gabriele becomes not only a stand-in for the countless (wannabe) performers who didn’t make it but simultaneously helps suggest how unusual and special Rocco’s three-decades-plus career really is.
The most valuable personal insights come from an extended interview (or interviews?) the directors conducted with Siffredi that is almost exclusively heard in voice-over. While this avoids turning the documentary into yet another talking head-heavy feature, there are certain moments of honesty — including the early admission that, for the first time in 30 years, he’s finally free from the influence of the “devil between his legs”— that would’ve benefited from seeing Siffredi’s facial expressions instead of illustrative material of him at work, at home or behind the scenes. Ditto for all the biographical material about his complex relationship with his mother (who wanted him to become a priest but approved of his line of work) and the actor’s at times torturous-sounding rapport with his own penis and sex drive (which more often than not sounds like a sex addiction).
“If I don’t suffer, I don’t feel alive,” he says at one point, while at another he remarks that “I’ve always tried not to disappoint a woman,” which applies not only to the many women he’s bedded but also — perhaps even especially — to his mother and his wife. The fact that it would be extremely hard to abide by both these statements suggests something about Tano’s complex persona. Even without seeing his face as he makes these admissions, the film manages to suggest something about the duality of Rocco’s personality and his ambiguous feelings about his relationships, his own body and his inner demons.
A lot of the material seems to have been captured on the fly, even if the camerawork is often beautifully composed. Even the shots of Rocco during some of the sex scenes he’s shooting have a gorgeous aesthetic that’s more upscale art production than porn shoot (there is plentiful nudity but all penetration occurs offscreen). That said, there are a few moments that feel staged, including a scene in which one of his teenage sons confesses that he’s seen Rocco’s work once and also notes that he really couldn’t have asked for a better father. But even these kind of prodded-feeling answers can be revealing: Rocco looks at his son with not pride but a mix of approval and agony — “Do I deserve this?” you almost hear him think — while the complete silence of his other son, who’s also in the room, is simply deafening.
For all their talent to suggest gray areas, contrasts and contradictions, the filmmakers don’t always manage to cram in important details. It’s never clear, for example, that Rocco’s wife used to be a porn actress herself, which is important knowledge needed to contextualize her comments about how she feels about her husband’s job. And the reason why Siffredi shoots so much abroad (and perhaps even decided to be based in Budapest), namely very murky Italian legislation when it comes to pornography, is also never addressed.
Finally, Rocco is more interested in suggesting something about its subject’s psychology and the industry that made him famous than in the numerous elements of his non-porn career. There is no mention of his recent appearance on an Italian reality show (that already started to show a side of him not seen before) or his work as an actor in non-pornographic films. But despite this and a few longueurs, the film manages to offer a fascinating glimpse of what kind of man might be hiding behind the brand that is Rocco Siffredi.
Production companies: Program 33, Mars Films, Falabracks
Writer-Directors: Thierry Demaiziere, Alban Teurlai
Producers: Fabrice Coat, Michel Spavone, Stephane Celerier, Valerie Garcia
Director of photography: Alban Teurlai
Editor: Alban Teurlai
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 105 minutes
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