Hands over the city...feet over the country? Geopolitical Twister®! Care to join Judge Rafael Gamboa in a game?
Francesco Rosi's (La Tregua) filmmaking is a dying breed, shot full of honesty, directness, and passion. Hands over the City is a work of transcendental political and social relevance, rising above the narrow scope of its subject to address issues that affect every democratic society in the world. At times rebellious, at others resigned, and always thought-provoking, this film is a must-see, and this DVD is a must-own.
Facts of the Case
A tenement building collapses in Naples, sparking an investigation that exposes a dense tangle of real estate speculation, political power struggles, and criminal organizations smothering the citizens of the city. The film is centered around the struggle between Edoardo Nottola (Rod Steiger, Lucky Luciano), councilman and main figurehead behind the forceful reorganization of Naples' urban housing, and De Vita (Carlo Fermariello), leader of the leftist party and a loquacious advocate for civil rights and the purging of corruption.
Also included in this DVD set is Neapolitan Diary, Rosi's feature-length sequel that revisits Naples thirty years later. Part docu-drama, part collage of his previous works, this film is an incredibly rich and nuanced portrait of a city where ancient legacies clash and combine with modernity.
For anyone who is not a Neapolitan, much of the nuance of these films will probably go unnoticed. Despite that fact, these films are so thematically rich that they cannot avoid making an impact.
From the opening shot, Rosi lays the groundwork of the film to follow: A shot of the city, panning over undeveloped land as Nottola speaks off camera, and suddenly his hands spear into frame, startling in their size and their aggressiveness. It is the first of many jarringly intrusive shots that visually illustrate the violent effect of the actions of those wielding power in the film, providing a direct visual counterweight to the government's physical detachment from its subjects. For while the images provide sharp, aggressive juxtapositions within the natural setting (for example, a rustic rural neighborhood in the background with heavy modern construction in the foreground), the characters remain for the most part physically isolated from the people they represent and govern. The few times they mingle, they either ignore the people or attempt to escape them as quickly as possible. It is this detachment from the consequences of their actions that allows many of them to pursue their own selfish ambitions at the expense of the populace. The people, insofar as they are a concern for the elected officials, need only be manipulated for their votes and money, and nothing more.
And what can be said of the people? They are nearly powerless. They have the power to vote, but they can only base their votes on what they hear, and what they hear are what the politicians tell them. Who are they to know who is honest and who is not? They are never allowed to see what the officials they elected are actually doing, and can only hope that their choice was a good one. This film exposes one of the primary hazards of democratic societies: while it is true that the people hold the ultimate power over the officials, that power is weakened considerably by the obfuscation politicians inevitably create to insulate themselves and their actions. When a citizen can never know for sure what a politician will actually do when elected, or what a piece of legislation will actually entail once passed, voting becomes an act of faith in the goodwill of the elected. This faith will often be difficult to remove; DeVita encountered this problem while trying to convince a group of Neapolitians who were being evicted to resist and stand for their rights. But loyalty to their elected officials, and faith in the correctness of their voting choices, was too entrenched to inspire rebellion. And who can blame them? If one cannot have faith in the system that defines the parameters of one's social existence and role in society, how can one continue to live in it?
It is ambiguous as to what conclusion the film reaches, and it is also ambiguous as to how one should react to it. While DeVita does expose much of the web of corruption, his final diatribe in the city council chamber is filmed in a single shot that slowly zooms farther and farther away from him as he speaks until the entire council fills the frame. The sensation of being drowned out and outnumbered is palpable; and the final sequence of shots incorporating close ups of heavy construction machinery in action is an intimidatingly forceful one, suggestive of the unstoppable bureaucratic machine that continues to hack away at the city. On the other hand, the very fact this film was made is encouraging and invigorating; it is the warning shot across the bow of corruption, a signal that there are people out there who can see past the lies. It's a wake up call, and a call to arms, urging the people to take back their city from the criminal world.
The second film included, Neapolitan Diary, is arguably even better than the original. Made in 1993, it's a semi-documentary exploration of modern Naples that was made for Italian television. The incredible thing about this film, though, is it's scope. This isn't just a reevaluation of the issues raised in Hands Over the City, it's a monumental expansion of them. Child delinquency, drug trade, economic growth, the urbanization and degradation of historical landmarks, the mafia, poor city planning…the list goes on. Rosi combines a small narrative involving himself and a small film crew, speeches and presentations by a number of Neapolitan academics, and various spliced scenes from his extensive oeuvre to create a portrait of a city through the ages. It is a remarkably moving film, a tragedy and a love letter, and a true work of art.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Criterion has crafted a delectable two-disc DVD set for our enjoyment. Not only were they kind enough to give us two films for the price of one, but they have also crammed the supplementary disc and booklet with interviews of all kinds, including three (!) involving Francesco Rosi. The others included in the interviews are film critics Tullio Kezich and Michel Ciment, writer Raffaele La Capria, and filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin. The hefty booklet also contains an insightful and informative essay by critic Stewart Klawans.
The video transfer is, as always, sublime and lickably clean. The only issue there is to have with the set is that the films are presented monaurally, so no surround sound for those of you with a tricked out home theater system. In light of everything else this DVD has accomplished, the mono sound is but a minor sticking point and shouldn't deter you from purchasing this otherwise flawless collection.
Overall, the DVD set is truly sexy. It even feels and smells like the paragon of decadent sophistication. And let's not even talk about its looks. This thing could win a beauty pageant if it ever found one worthy of its presence.
I'm too busy lovingly stroking the DVD to get on with the verdict.
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Scales of Justice
• Neapolitan Diary, sequel to Hands Over the City
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