As settlements for city expansion plans are sealed by tweed suited investors, boundless crane shots fly over a post-war Italy. Booming percussion and sweeping brass bellow from the rooftops. Capitalist coalitions are made concrete amidst the turmoil of a collapsing Naples construction. The hue and cry on the streets bellow is like a modern-day Sodom. These are the opening ten minutes to Francesco Rosi’s Hands over the City (Le mani sulla città, 1963). Amidst the pandemonium, it holds potential for being the most politically bombastic introduction in cinema’s historic oeuvre. It’s relentless, extreme and uncompromisingly revolutionary.
Akin to Antonioni’s aesthetically suffocating L’Avventura (1960) or L’Eclisse (1962), Rosi employs the asphyxiating frigidity of architecture to define a mood of enclosure. In Hands Over the City, however, Rosi takes it even further. The sprawling industrial landscape encapsulates perfectly a socio-political misconduct of corrupt institutional bodies in the ruling classes. Rod Steiger plays a Neapolitan land developer and elected city councilman, Edoardo Nottola. Detestable and gluttonous, Steiger’s character abuses his political power for fiscal gain in a large scale suburban real estate deal. Yet, following the collapse of a decrepit residential building, the stoic bureaucrat finds himself in the middle of a incriminating legal dispute with a Communist councilman Da Vita in connection to the accident.
Despite the film’s grossly cataclysmic opening, the bulk of the film depends almost entirely on discourse from one council office to the next. It reels out like the European counterpart to All the Presidents Men for the underprivileged Mussolini generation. In a sense, it’s Rosi’s ulterior political agenda, to defame Italy’s hoggish money men, that remains focal. Action is secondary to the stylised deadpan performances played out impeccably by Steiger. This can, at times, completely alienate Rosi’s audience. The text heavy narrative delves deep into the mirth of governmental workings to an almost journalistic, documentary-style degree. It almost seems too believable to enjoy.
Lines between reality and fantasy become a massive blur. In fact, Rosi took it upon himself to prove the picture’s basis in fiction by including a disclaimer outlining the film’s founding on hypothetical events. If not for the masterful aesthetic – the bold, unfaltering craftsmanship of the choreography – Hands over the City may have fallen victim to its own cleverness. Nonetheless, Rosi’s belligerent account of capitalist indecency in a war beaten democracy is as significant today as it was on its initial release.