Francesco Rosi’s ‘Le Mani Sulla Citta’ (‘Hands Over The City’ — 1963) lays down its foundations from the get go. A close up of construction boss Edoardo Nottola’s (Rod Steiger) hands pulls out to reveal him standing on the outskirts of Naples with some investors. This land is cheap, practically worthless, but if they can convince the politicians to build the city out to this area then they will make a fortune. Fortunately Steiger’s character is an elected councilman so has sway, influence and power. Also, there is an election coming up and if the right-wing party gets in then Steiger will be head of all construction and housing in Naples, giving him access to the entire candy-jar.
However, after one of his buildings collapses, killing and injuring people due to Steiger’s construction firm cutting corners, public outrage at the accident means an investigation is launched but, seemingly, at every point the investigating team hit brick walls more solidly built than the non-metaphorical ones as the entire political system seems to be constructed to allow and turn a blind eye to corruption on every level. Deniable accountability is found in every department meaning no one need take blame. Why? Because almost everyone is on the make. Meanwhile Naples wildly substandard housing is crumbling and the ordinary citizen is suffering (although Rosi doesn’t let them off the hook either).
With all this in their way, can the investigating committee find the proof to stop Nottola in time before he assumes complete control, control that will mean he can rip the entire heart out of Naples meaning, quite frankly, the city will be totally fucked?
‘Le Mani Sulla Citta’ is spectacular. Similar to his incredible ‘Salvatore Guilliano’, the film is shot documentary style giving it an immediacy and drive and although the story and characters are fictional the issues, problems and systems are real. Rosi presents all this in a way that positively vibrates with energy and with the ticking clock of trying to bring Steiger down before he can assume power the movie has the tension and drive of a thriller.
Rosi’s films are also clear and direct. They don’t have the impenetrable abstract, Marxist intellectualism of Pasolini or the nostalgic introspection of the Left of Bertolucci. Rosi deals with direct, dynamic and concrete social issues and his movies are for everyone to understand and “get”. But this doesn’t mean his films are lacking in style as Rosi gets to have his panettone and eat it with some incredible camerawork and visual composition. You’ll be watching a scene play out documentary or news-style only for it to morph into a stunning tracking shot or a flourishing grace note of lyrical beauty.
There’s a spectacular scene when Steiger’s character, pacing in his office alone at night and worried about the investigation, walks up to the window and gazes out across the city, his hands constantly in motion. Reflected in the glass are the huge plans for his vision of the city covering the back wall of his office, out of shot, but we see it clearly superimposed over all of Naples. This is not just a reflection and we don’t see it as one. We see it for what it is — Steiger, through the sheer unstoppable power of his will is projecting the vision from his mind directly onto the city. It is a remarkable image and gives Steiger the stature of a corrupt god.
And Steiger’s performance is one of the best of the sixties. He vibrates with contained rage as he stares prickly, spiky like an agitated cactus always on the verge to argue or fight; aggressively defiant and practically quivering for Naples to just dare to take him on. This truculent succulent is intimidation made immovable flesh.
Rosi’s films also do something I love in Italian movies and which he does better than anyone else and that is — Italians shouting loudly at each other. Grieving widows in black shout at the politicians, the Communists shout at the right, everyone shouts at the centre party, and there are wonderful scenes of hundreds of councilors shouting politics at each other. And these legible cacophonies only add to the drama. The soundtrack is also superb with chords seemingly collapsing in on themselves like tumbling masonry. It’s just wonderful.
I love ‘Le Mani Sulla Citta’. It is a film in which the left still felt viable and essential before its warnings about not letting the right take control became depressingly real. It is already a blistering and worrying movie preempting the rise of ‘politicians’ such as Berlusconi or look at it in the light of what’s happening in America right now (a corrupt, vain business man seeking political office that will allow him to gut and hollow out his own society and pursue abhorrent construction plans) and ‘Le Mani Sulla Citta’ makes us all feel like those Neapolitans — i.e. fucking terrified. Although the rot had set in long ago.