There was a time not too long ago when Hands Over the City ranked very close to the bottom of my "can't wait to see it" list of Criterion DVDs... if it even warranted consideration at all. Just going by the description, it's the kind of film that I would have probably skipped altogether if I had not made that fateful decision several years ago to go "Triple C" and become a Criterion Collection Completist. The thought of spending an hour and forty minutes exploring the backroom politics of urban Italian real estate speculation in the early 1960s doesn't exactly fire up the ol' synapses, no matter how much excited verbiage ("ferocious," "blistering," "devastated," "breathlessly," "cataclysmic," "passion," "outrage") is thrown at me on the back cover. That was back before I knew who the director Francesco Rosi was, when his breakout film Salvatore Giuliano was an equally opaque mystery to me, and the name Rod Steiger, though familiar, didn't really do much to stir my interest, other than to wonder how a Hollywood star like him wound up in an obscure Italian art house film. (But then again, Burt Lancaster was filming The Leopard right around the same time, so I guess "doing a film in Italy" must have been a thing back then.)
So Hands Over the City sat there on my shelf for the past few years, patiently awaiting its moment to show up in my queue. As it turns out, the wait was worth it. With the government of the USA pretty much locked down these days in a turgid quagmire of obstructionist capitalist scumbags intent on squeezing the last drops of profit from the population they seek to control, I found myself primed to receive Rosi's message. The timing was perfect for me to discover and appreciate this surprisingly relevant and topical study of systemic corruption and exploitative ambition that still drives Western society some 50 years after Rosi offered what he hoped would be a change-inducing expose on the rotten core of modern political economy. He had, after all, provoked enough controversy with Salvatore Giuliano to trigger some official investigations into the role that the Mafia played in Sicilian affairs, which resulted in legislative initiatives significant enough to justify further reformist ambitions. And with Italian cinema of that era enjoying new heights of cultural prestige and international acclaim, who could fault him for investing hope in the idea, naive and delusional as it may seem to us now, that a well-crafted movie with an intelligent, morally invigorating message might actually change the order of things and help to usher in a new era of truth, justice and freedom? Ah, the Sixties, such a blessedly idealistic phase in our cultural history...
Still, as a child of that decade who has never outgrown my longing for the utopian dream of world peace, social equity and universal harmony to be realized, I remain constantly on the lookout for new sources of reinforcement. Hands Over the City is hardly optimistic in the story it tells, but its mission of straightforwardly revealing the full extent of banality, greed and cynicism that drives so many big decisions in our world is enough to light my candle and encourage me along the way.
The story is pretty simple, with the most dynamic action occurring within the first several minutes of the film. In a nutshell, before the opening credits roll, we meet the real estate tycoon Nottola (played by Steiger) who previously succeeded in getting himself elected to the city council of Naples, Italy. He's on the outskirts of the city, on a tract of land that's remained undeveloped over the centuries, mainly because it's geologically rugged and until now has been too far from the city center to be worth the effort. But as Italy's economic miracle fosters new growth and expansion, the time has come, in Nottola's view, to exploit this new frontier. He just needs his fellow councilmen to affirm the opportunity he lays before them, by approving the sale of public land to his development corporation, modify the zoning ordinances and basically pave the legal path for his scheme to come to its full and privately profitable fruition.
Meanwhile, construction continues in an older, working class district of Naples. The buildings in this part of town are older, survivors of wars, earthquakes and the general decay that time and the elements inflict upon us all. Urban renewal efforts are underway to replace the decrepit, overpopulated tenements with sleek new, hastily built high-rise apartment blocks, but disaster strikes, in a small, localized way, when an exterior wall, several stories high, collapses in the middle of an afternoon, killing two people and crippling a child who got caught under the falling rubble. The building is owned by Nottola, and his son happened to be the guy in charge of the construction crew working nearby, as a pile driver was rhythmically pounding the ground, laying foundation for a new structure. What led to the failure of that structure? Who is responsible for the damage, the injury, the fatalities? The citizens of Naples demand answers, and they look to their elected representatives to supply the answers.
The inquiry aimed at informing that response, and managing the ensuing scandal so as to not upset the delicate political advantages of those currently in power, makes up the substance of what follows in Hands Over the City. In more conventional hands, even under the guidance of activist, politically-minded directors with whom I'd most likely agree, the plot and dialog would circle around for awhile until they pointed at some particularly egregious example of hypocrisy or self-serving greed on which to pin the blame. But Rosi's objective is different - he's more interested in examining the process than in focusing on the personalities. He recognizes the cheap satisfactions that come with offering audiences a convenient villain to boo and a valiant hero to cheer for. And he already knows that it's easy enough for us to draw the conclusion that to businessmen like Nottola, the collateral damage of a few dead workers or a child injured for life is simply an unfortunate downside, the cost of doing business. His personal profits, and his sincere conviction that as a "great man" and leader, he's helping to create a more prosperous and dynamic city, are enough to salve Nottola's conscience. To him, having a clear head for business, dispensing all the emotions and hesitations that result from caring so much about the people directly about his deals, is all that matters. Rosi takes that for a given, and presents it to us in a gesture of respect that acknowledges our own understanding that this is indeed how the world operates. He gives us enough of a look at Nottola's exterior actions to draw that judgement, but he doesn't waste time trying to get inside the man's head or heart - he just recognizes that the world is full of men like him, who behave and decide so predictably as to require no deeper analysis of what makes them tick.
Nor is Rosi all that intent on inspiring us through the example of Councilman De Vita, Nottola's main antagonist and the moral counterpart to Nottola in Hands Over the City: the man concerned not with his individual fortune and perpetual control over the levers of commerce, but rather on the collective well-being of the ordinary working folk he represents. De Vita is a communist, a man of the people, chief spokesman for the council's leftist contingent, who strives to infuse a moral conscience into the official deliberations and fact-finding efforts. At least, that's the face-value surface reading of how he's presented in this film. From the political right's point of view, he's a self-serving rabble rouser who merely exploits and perpetuates the poverty of those he advocates for, thriving on their resentment of the powers-that-be and doing little more than impeding the inevitable march of progress and the rightful authority of the free market.
My hunch is that most viewers sympathetic to Rosi's perspective will find more to like in De Vita's character than in Nottola's, and the conflicts between their two points of view certainly do stir up many of the films more dramatic moments. I found myself mostly just "respecting" De Vita for his courage and commitment, not necessarily wanting to be him. But the most significant tensions, and most diabolically difficult to resolve, are those that stem from the inertia imposed by the largely anonymous members of the council. These men, bland, fatuous and complacent in regard to the privileges entrusted to them, line up dutifully to bolster the ranks of those leaders who issue order, provide direction and fully understand the threat that a principled commitment to economic and political equity presents to their grip on power. The various floor debates, public announcements, closed-door committee meetings, backroom negotiations and off-the-record bargains, threats and maneuvers, are almost entirely aimed at managing perceptions, creating and enlarging loopholes and providing airtight legal cover to the assorted rip-offs and shenanigans that these politicians contrive. It's that bald candor, that frank portrayal of the fact that the kind of people drawn to these positions of power, in both politics and in business, tend to be selfish preening assholes, with little if anything that resembles a coherent ethical core when it comes to considering the interests of the broader society as they pursue their own ambitions.
This video clip, a fine student edit that condenses Hands Over the City into about 10% of its full running time, offers a generous sample of the film that I think should give most readers a sense of whether or not they want to take the full plunge. And for those who've seen it already, it's an excellent refresher.
Hands Over the City is a serious movie, one that requires close attention and a fair amount of concentration to understand the significance of what takes place in the many verbal exchanges between various stakeholders in the controversies. Fortunately, Rosi's directorial skills are such that he's created a film that succeeds on the basis of its drama and cinematography as well, with stark and crisply defined, high contrast monochrome images assisting our eye in staying focused. (A second viewing, when one doesn't have to pay as much attention to the subtitles, is recommended in order to appreciate the visual dynamics.) And the musical soundtrack is also quite striking; though most of the soundtrack is diagetic, mainly the sound of people talking, there are several key scenes where the emotional impact strikes through a combination of picture (cityscapes or characters in contemplative isolation) and Piero Piccioni's thundering, percussive orchestral score. You can hear a snippet of it at the tail end of that clip embedded above, but the music is probably the biggest "missing piece" that got left out of the edited sampler.
So as I said earlier, I finished up my watch of Hands Over the City feeling a bit recharged and encouraged, mostly just taking some solace in the fact that a smart and talented guy like Francesco Rosi understands what's going on and has made a film that strips bare the pretense that most political leaders, even those I'm inclined to support, still try to maintain in justifying their actions. It's not too far of a shift from that realization to a more depressing and sobering acknowledgement that the establishment of our enculturated power and control systems is such that it becomes highly resistant toward the entertainment of broadly humanitarian concerns. The political status quo, both then and now, is more pliable to the kind of devious bastards like Nottola and his ilk who work on the micro-level to craft small phrases and clauses within the syntax of the law that offer advantages to those who know where to find the obscure passages, as well as comprehensive legal immunity for any damages inflicted on the real people who suffer most egregiously on account of their avarice and manipulation. Just ask the residents of West, Texas... Mayflower, Arkansas... Calhoun County, Michigan... the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia... the families of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig... and many other industrial disasters, each of which were attributable to gross negligence in the pursuit of expanded monetary gain. Too often, Hands Over the City are the same hands pilfering our bank accounts and grabbing us by the throat.
Next: The Silence