Entertainment Magazine

Hands Over the City

Posted on the 31 August 2016 by Christopher Saunders
Hands Over the CityFrancesco Rosi followed his groundbreaking Salvatore Giuliano (1961) with Hands Over the City (1963). It's a more banal but no less disquieting portrait of corruption, focusing on urban decay and business-government collusion.
Developer Edoardo Nottola (Rod Steiger) buys cheap land on the outskirts of Naples to build apartments. The project causes a tenement to collapse, killing several people. De Vita (Alberto Conocchia), a leftist politician, forces an investigation which reveals collusion between authorities and construction companies. Nottola runs for city commissioner, ignoring press attacks and criticism from his own party, becoming a symbol of systemic corruption.
Hands Over the City offers as sharp a portrait of governmental malfeasance as any film. Nottola couches his greed in idealistic speeches about progress and public benefit. His shoddy tenements crumble under pressure, forcing Neapolitans to live in life-threatening squalor. Malnourished children fill hospitals and tenants subsist without proper resources, yet Nottola and his allies care only about self-enrichment. They're bold enough to evict the tenants during an election season, indifferent to its impact.
Yet Rosi's careful not to make Nottola a convenient villain. Naples' city council is a tangle of shifting alliances and pettifogging bureaucrats, all eager to avoid responsibility. The Commission seems a whitewash when the Mayor limits its powers, yet De Vita keeps pushing against restraints. Well-connected businessmen push contracts through the Council and appeal to Rome, arranging hasty projects in days and forfeiting public land. Eventually the rightists cuts Nattola loose, saving face while maintaining the status quo.
Rosi replicates his Giuliano style, neorealism on a grand scale. Much of the film consists of arguments about zoning regulations and political maneuvers, yet Rosi writes and films these scenes with great, convincing enemies. The collapse is an impressive set piece, filmed in long shot to emphasize its agonizing magnitude. He constantly contrasts Nottola's idealized blueprints with sprawling, squalid "hovels" he oversees, confronting the disconnect between ideals and urban reality.
Rod Steiger (his voice dubbed into Italian) gives an effective turn, persuasively businesslike whether blustering about progress or bracing against threats. His type, a businessman-turned-demagogue without principle, is all too familiar in not only Italian but American politics. In neorealist style, most of the supporting players are nonprofessional actors, with leftist Parliamentarian Alberto Conocchia expertly playing himself.
Made amidst postwar Italy's political confusion, Hands Over the City seems as pertinent to 21st Century America as 1960s Naples. How many towns, cities, states assign public works projects to crooked, unscrupulous companies? It's an exposure of privatization's shortcomings, arguing that public service shouldn't mix with profit.

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