Hands Over the City
October 27, 2006
Edoardo Nottola (Steiger) is an ambitious land developer who wants to build up a promising, rough piece of real estate in Francesco Rosi’s hard-hitting expose of corruption, Hands Over the City (1963). From the opening establishing shot, Rosi presents the densely populated city of Naples as a place constantly busy with the hustle and bustle of daily life. A building under construction collapses in the middle of the day sending people scattering for cover. It’s a powerful and dynamic sequence to start the movie with and succeeds in capturing our attention right away.
A boy is critically injured and two others die in the collapse. Nottola is quick to arrive on the scene to assess the extent of the damage. Almost immediately, an investigation is launched to uncover who was responsible. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened and real estate speculation within the city comes under fire. Nottola’s company Bellevista operates in that particular section of the city and is accused of being in collusion with the municipal government. The collapse opens an ugly can of worms that Nottola wants desperately to close. However, the opposing political party is enraged and demands answers.
Why is their so much intense interest in real estate practices? According to the estimates at the time, buildable land increased in value by approximately 120 billion lire. Nottola and his company have been linked to several of the city’s biggest construction scandals with inquiries suggesting incompetence on his company’s part. The city’s mayor, who is league with Nottola for a piece of the action, has managed to stall inquiries by the opposition but this latest disaster may prove to be the last straw and a scandal that Nottola cannot escape from this time.
A man named De Vita (Fermariello) leads the investigation into Bellavista’s methods: how are they able to obtain building permits in a third of the time it normally takes, and their building practices in general? However, he is forced to wade through mountains of bureaucratic red tape and is led around in circles. Nottola is very upset as the collapse and the ensuing inquiry puts his name in the newspapers every day. Worst of all, he has had to stop his company’s work and that means a stop in revenue. As he puts it, “Money isn’t like a car that can sit idle in a garage. It’s like a horse that has to eat every day.”
Hands Over the City brilliantly exposes how big city development operates and how construction companies grease the wheels to get what they want and this involves paying off city officials so that these companies can do what they want with little bureaucratic interference. Of course, it is the people who suffer – dying in building collapses due to shoddy construction materials and practices or living in substandard conditions because it is all that they can afford.
Rosi has previously made a significant contribution to political cinema with Salvatore Giuliano (1962) and Hands Over the City continued to do what he described as the ability to master “the delicate balance between reality itself and an interpretation of reality.” As the director has said, his movie is about a game of alliances – both economical and political with the general public unwitting pawns unaware of what is happening and in the end suffering from the consequences while the powers that be remain rich and powerful. Hands Over the City is a wonderfully angry protest movie that also entertains and features a powerful performance by Rod Steiger. Kudos to the folks at Criterion for providing yet another excellent example of international cinema.
There is an interview with Francesco Rosi who talks about making the movie. He says that, “experiencing reality through political actions, through political events, is very, very difficult. You have to have a very practiced eye.” Like with his previous film, Salvatore Giuliano, he wanted to make a movie that featured “realism and investigation,” with the topic of housing speculation.
Italian film critic Tullio Kezich talks briefly about Rosi’s films. He finds his work fascinating because it upsets and disturbs. He describes Hands Over the City as “an analysis of a criminal situation depicted in a very powerful way.”
Film critic Michel Ciment interviews Rosi and screenwriter Raffaele la Capria about their initial inspiration for the movie. They grew up together in Naples, where the film is set, and so they knew the city well and had a vested interest in its state of affairs.
Filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin takes a critical look at the film, describing it as “cinema of claustrophobia” and relentless in its look at corruption. He points out that many of the characters yell at each other but don’t really listen to what is being said.
Finally, the most substantial extra is Neapolitan Diary (1992), Rosi’s feature-length documentary that revisits Naples 30 years after he made Hands Over the City to examine its current state of civic affairs. He shows that things have not gotten better and are in fact worse.