Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
When Italian director Francesco Rosi hit his stride in the beginning of the 1960s, he was immediately acclaimed as a maker of socially conscious dramas about major political issues. His Salvatore Giuliano is a precise examination of Sicilian politics after WW2, a factual story told on an epic scale. Hands Over the City is a fictitious but equally serious investigation of corruption in Naples, centered on the cozy relationship between public officials and a private real estate developer. As soon as men with power consider city projects involving great sums of money, the commitment to serving the public vanishes in the face of self-interest.
Criterion's DVD includes Rosi's 1992 Neapolitan Diary, an amazing follow-up semi-documentary that shows the filmmaker still in love with the city of Naples, problems and all, thirty years later.
A reckless construction project by Neapolitan developer Edoardo Nottola (Rod Steiger) is halted when part of an adjoining apartment building collapses, killing two and crippling a young boy. The poor of the city demand justice, and city hall is thrown into an uproar. Nottola's work is all done through back-room deals and both the mayor and the ruling conservatives profit directly from his land speculation. Left-wing firebrand De Vita (Alberto Conocchia) forces an investigation and sees the elections coming up as a chance to break the Right's stranglehold on city power. Feeling the pressure, the mayor tries to force Nottola (himself a city official) to withdraw his candidacy. The mayor's cronies want to disassociate themselves from the scandal, but Nottola refuses. De Vita's investigation is stymied by the city bureaucracy. The various planning, zoning and regulation agencies conclude that nobody is responsible for the 'accident,' even though everyone knows it was homicidal negligence. The poor in the crumbling apartment houses demand justice, and all De Vita can say is, "If you want justice, why do you keep voting for those people?"
The average film about civic corruption is a crime drama in which a bold lawman or public prosecutor bravely takes down the racketeers. The focus is on the lone crusader risking all against a violent mob, and the political games that keep the hoods in power are barely seen. When the "Mr. Big" villain is finally toppled or killed, we're told that democracy will now prevail and the city will flourish. Hands Over the City ignores the fairy tales and instead examines the real political structures that permit the corruption to flourish. Although the film has its righteous crusader and an identifiable villain, the triumph of one or the downfall of the other will not make a difference to the essential problem -- the system itself is deeply flawed.
Francesco Rosi has strong Leftist and populist sympathies but he does not imply that one political party has a solution. Power and money trump all other considerations. The movie is about the failure of basic human institutions.
Rod Steiger's culpable developer Nottola is at least as human as his political opponents. Nottola knows what he wants, from the very first scene set on a hilltop on the outskirts of the city. He has already contracted to buy thousands of acres of relatively worthless farming land, and to realize a 5,000% profit he arranges for it all to be quietly re-zoned. He can then build hundreds of apartment towers. With bribes and 'campaign funding' doing all the real work, permits and construction waivers that normally take months to process are turned around in a couple of days. Everything with Nottola is expedience. When the building collapse halts progress on his waterfront construction he turns into a bundle of knots. The huge sums he's financed are an insupportable weight -- his corrupt machine must be kept in motion.
Rosi's film has a riveting set piece or original situation every few minutes. The collapse of the giant building is a shocking surprise. One moment we're watching workmen in a brick-strewn construction site, and then the camera tilts up and we see the top of a concrete wall begin to tilt, ever so slightly. The city council meetings are a free-for-all of accusations and counter-accusations. At one point De Vita shouts that the profiteering conservatives have blood on their hands, which leads to an entire gallery of outraged politicians holding up their hands, yelling back "Our hands are clean!" When De Vita tries to nail down responsibility for the deadly collapse, the city planning engineers refuse to acknowledge that the building to be demolished shared a support wall with its neighbor, and therefore was unsafe to take down. They point to plan maps and show that the wall is so small on the scale that it couldn't be measured. De Vita tries to argue the reality -- a rickety structure obviously at great risk -- but the experts calmly limit the argument to a few lines on a blueprint.
The mayor inhibits De Vita's investigation from looking at 'the bigger picture' while struggling to keep his own conservatives in line. An outraged councilman in charge of hospitals is effectively curbed with an admonition to 'stop looking at the problem from a moral point of view.' Instead of falling apart, the mayor and Nottola form a broader coalition, bringing more moderates over to their side. The investigation stalls and the status quo is maintained.
Francesco Rosi's production is nothing short of amazing. He filmed in Naples using mostly non-professionals; the hundreds of balding, middle-aged politicians look real because they are. The excellent Alberto Conocchia really is a liberal councilman and essentially plays himself. American Rod Steiger is exceedingly well cast. He spoke English on the set and the other actors answered in Italian; his voice is post-dubbed.
Criterion's DVD of Hands Over the City is an excellent enhanced transfer of this beautifully filmed B&W show. Included on a second disc are lively interview discussions with Rosi, his screenwriter and friend Raffaelle La Capria, and critics Michel Ciment, Tulio Kezich and Jean-Pierre Gorin.
The best extra is Rosi's 1992 Neapolitan Diary, a fascinating return to the same issues done in a semi-docu style. The 'story' joins Rosi as he fights his way through impossible city traffic to a school of architecture to host a discussion of the older movie. The students explain how things in Naples have changed in thirty years. Nobody even knows who is in charge, as the organized crime institution called Camorra controls everything including a massive drug trade. Disputes with uncooperative judges are now handled with machine guns and bombs. The city's poor are caught up in the drug industry, which creates more poverty and misery. As Rosi and his companions tour the city, the docu camera pulls in comments and testimony from experts on both the New Naples and its historical roots. Speculative development has scarred the countryside with giant apartment buildings that now clog most every bit of seaside real estate. Public money is quickly tapped by projects that generate private profits while the city infrastructure is a mess. Modern Naples has been built atop the ruins of older cities. An engineer tells us that building so many high-rise structures on the city's uncertain foundations is risky. Meanwhile the community is allowed to sprawl right up to the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius. If the volcano were to erupt, millions of inhabitants would be as trapped as the citizens of ancient Pompeii. Through all of this, Rosi is able to stroll about his beloved city and enjoy its bakeries and surviving architecture. Neapolitan Diary compliments Hands Over the City while making this Criterion disc an excellent research document on urban problems.
Disk producer Abbey Lustgarten is responsible for this superior release; a fat insert booklet contains an essay by Stuart Klawans and a text interview with Francesco Rosi.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hands Over the City rates:
Supplements: Video interviews and discussions with Rosi, Raffaele La Capria, Michel Ciment, Tulio Kezich and Jean-Pierre Gorin; essay by Stuart Klawans and text interview with Rosi; Neapolitan Diary, a 1992 feature length docu sequel to Hands Over the City
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 17, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson