It's a good thing director Francesco Rosi worked in Europe, not Los Angeles, because this premise would never fly as Hollywood entertainment, not even in 1963, when the movie capital was still at least attempting to make "social" pictures. But Rosi's "Hands Over the City," inspired by what he saw as the ruination of his hometown of Naples by rampant development, is great cinema and far from a pedantic civics lesson. The movie was Rosi's followup to the controversial Sicilian true-crime drama "Salvatore Giuliano," and while it won the top prize at the 1963 Venice Film Festival, its notoriety has faded over the years to the point that this fine new Criterion DVD can serve as its introduction to later generations of cinephiles.
Rod Steiger -- Rosi's one concession to using a Hollywood name -- stars as Edoardo Nottola, a Naples city councilman who also happens to be a powerful developer. Nottola, who is up for reelection, wants to buy some desolate city-owned land and turn it into a gold mine of apartment buildings. He tells his would-be partners: "Sure, invest in factories: strikes, unions, medical benefits. It'll give you a heart attack. I'm proposing no strife and no worries. All profit and no risk."
But the risk factor comes into play when an old apartment building collapses during nearby construction by Nottola's company, killing two occupants and injuring a boy. A leftist city council member, De Vita (Carlo Fermariello, an actual Naples council member and secretary of the workers' party), interrupts the council's usual business, insisting on an investigation into the catastrophe and how it is that building permits were granted by the majority right wing to one of its own members in a matter of days, when such permits normally take six months to two years. De Vita, a pain in the ass to the right and center parties, is the lone, insistent voice against corruption and for the citizens who elected the council and the mayor.
While Steiger's Nottola remains absent for long stretches of the movie, Fermariello's De Vita pops up again and again, sarcastically berating council members across the aisle and forging ahead with his investigation, all the time speaking truth to power clearly and forcefully. He's the movie's hero, though Rosi is presenting a real world where heroic underdogs aren't likely to make much difference. When townspeople complain to De Vita about the pending loss of their homes, he angrily upbraids them with the hard truth: "You brought this on yourselves. This is what you get for voting for them. You gave them power to do as they please."
Rosi's post-neorealism mode seems stunningly fresh and original today. Not a word or gesture is wasted (and there are plenty of shouted speeches and wild gesticulations), and the "nonprofessional" cast couldn't be more perfect. Even within its "accidental" documentary style, there are memorable formalist images: the mayor and council members literally looking down upon a miniature model of the city they so utterly control; a slow pan that reveals a silent De Vita standing in an alleyway watching as his poor constituents are evicted; Nottola repeatedly framed in front of his office wallpaper -- a huge street map of Naples, his plaything; the right-wing council members holding up their fat hands to show the opposition they are not dirty; and most of all, the catalytic building collapse -- a pre-digital (i.e., superior) sequence filmed in both medium and long shot that has you exclaiming, "They really knocked down that building with all those people around!").
Rosi may be more famous for his later, rural, more ruminative dramas like "Christ Stopped at Eboli" and "Three Brothers," but "Hands Over the City" is an urban masterpiece by an angry young man.
Criterion has given "Hands Over the City" the DVD treatment it deserves: two disks full of extras, a fine-looking transfer and a substantial booklet.
Picture and sound
In a 16-minute interview segment, Rosi and collaborator Raffaele La Capria discuss (in French) their inspiration and themes with French critic Michel Ciment. A 14-minute interview for Italian TV has Rosi admitting that his film requires "a very attentive audience, and a very active one." He says the movie "immediately became a kind of banner, not just for architects and urban planners, but for everyone who cared about the truth and cared deeply that public life be carried on in public without subterfuge, without hidden complicity, without corruption."
There are also shorter interviews, with Italian critic Tullio Kezich and French filmmaker and Godard associate Jean-Pierre Gorin, who, speaking English, hits the nail on the head: "Rosi wants to dissipate the smoke that exists in those back rooms," Gorin says. "It's the cinema of claustrophobia."
A handsome, well-illustrated 34-page booklet includes an insightful essay by Stuart Klawans, who places the film in the context of both Rosi's career and Italian cinema. His description of the memorable theme music is eloquent and accurate: "a cloud of brass, gathering amorphously like a headache, until it's broken through by a threatening twang, as if an electric bass were being kicked downstairs." The booklet also reprints a 2004 interview with Rosi for the inaugural issue of CinemaCitta, a journal devoted to architecture, urban planning and cinema. Interviewer Enrico Costa tells Rosi that "Hands Over the City" taught him and his fellow future architects more about urban planning than they learned in school. "It jolted us into seeing society as it really is instead of how we wished it to be."
Little known in the U.S. (it was put away soon after a New York Film Festival showing in 1964), Francesco Rosi's "Hands Over the City" reappears, thanks to the sharp folks at Criterion, to take its rightful place in the repertoire of important European arthouse cinema. Rod Steiger, as a greedy politician/contractor, and the one-film-only nonpro Carlo Fermariello, as Steiger's nemesis and the film's conscience, help to humanize an unapologetically political drama. It's an anger-inducing work that illustrates the adage about absolute power corrupting absolutely, and it couldn't arrive at a more appropriate time. As an interviewee in the supplemental material says, "Rosi is still current." The attention the movie gets in this double-disc set confirms that belief.