Hands over the City:
Confidential Reports—The Investigative Thrillers of Francesco Rosi

Oct 24, 2006

Twenty-one years after Orson Welles sprang on the world a current-events picture called Citizen Kane—original title, American—a worthy successor burst forth in Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano. A real-life story of the recent murder of a Sicilian bandit—or, rather, an inquiry into the bloody confluence of business interests, the political establishment, and the Mafia—Salvatore Giuliano may be compared to Citizen Kane in that it tore its subject matter from the newspaper, then dramatized it in a style of brooding razzle-dazzle, using a fractured narrative structure and a protagonist who was huge and yet strangely absent. It was the third feature to be directed and co-written by the thirty-nine-year-old Rosi, following his long apprenticeship in theater and radio, and as an assistant to Luchino Visconti and other filmmakers; but Salvatore Giuliano was, by his own account, the first movie in which he "mastered the delicate balance between reality itself and an interpretation of reality." Its presentation at the 1962 Berlin Film Festival was one of the moments that made the 1960s so rare and exciting, putting Rosi into that select international group of artists who seemed likely to remake the world by remaking the cinema.

From that moment through the release, in 1976, of his Illustrious Corpses, Rosi created a series of political dramas that were at once provocations, exposés, thrillers, puzzles, and acts of virtu­osity. The fond hope that these films might eventually change society was encouraged, early on, by the ruckus that Salvatore Giuliano set off, leading to the formation of a parliamentary commission in Sicily to investigate the influence of the Mafia. The people would know, and the people at last would act! Meanwhile, fortunately, the films also provided an instantaneous benefit of being vital and innovative. Rosi had taken the immediacy of neorealism—its quasidocumentary presentation of real people, in real locations, acting out real social problems—and merged it with a Wellesian love of showmanship, melancholy, baroque contrivance, and enigma. Nowhere is this combination more outlandishly theatrical, yet absolutely authentic, than in Hands over the City, where actual members of the Naples City Council, playing themselves, in their own chamber, lift up their arms in protest to cry, "Our hands are clean!"—a bit of acting that they must have performed twice, so that Rosi could film it in long shot from the front, and then cut to a closer, more emphatic view from behind.

Released in 1963, Hands over the City was the second great film in Rosi's political series. It fully confirmed Rosi's stature, winning him the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, while showing his newfound audience how masterfully he could work in the place he knew best, his native Naples. There was an added attraction, too, for the box office, and for the inveterate movie fan in Rosi: Hands over the City starred a Hollywood actor, Rod Steiger, cast to best advantage as a volcanic heavy, the image he had established in On the Waterfront, The Big Knife, and (more recently) Al Capone.

Taking up the formula that Rosi had set in Salvatore Giuliano, and would use again in The Mattei Affair (1972), Lucky Luciano (1974), and Illustrious Corpses, Hands over the City dramatizes an inquiry--a failed one, but instructive all the same for the information it tosses up before the audience. In this case, the investigators are members of the Naples City Council, who are set in motion (reluctantly, for the most part) by the collapse of an apartment building in a crowded, working-class alley. Did the building fall down, killing two people and severely injuring a boy, because of unsafe work at an adjacent site? Most of the council members are content to limit their probe to this specific question (having decided in advance that the answer will be no).

At first, the lone advocate for a wider inquiry—iif, by "advocacy," you mean shouting, hand waving, and sarcasm—is De Vita, a hunched and pigeon-breasted Communist who insists that the real problem is one of general corruption, as embodied in a council member and real estate developer named Edoardo Nottola (Steiger). Nottola's right-wing political party controls the government; the government controls the city's planning and construction agencies; the agencies let Nottola control whatever development sites he fancies; and the resulting profits, which are enormous, flow back, in part, into the right-wing party. With an election coming up in just a month, De Vita is determined to break this circle by bringing it to light--but, this being a typical Rosi movie, De Vita himself is led in circles, as he tramps through office after municipal office, always being told that the agency down the corridor is the one with the answer. In reality, the experience must have been a common one, to judge by the vividness of De Vita's mocking exasperation. He is played by Carlo Fermariello: not a professional actor but a member of the city council and secretary of the chamber of commerce.

Fermariello's De Vita seems to me more emotionally legible—in a way, more present--than Steiger's Nottola, who (despite being the central figure) is distant and inaccessible in most scenes, as if muffled by his overcoat and body fat; and this, too, is typical of Rosi's formula. "In the general economy of the stories," Rosi once told the critic David Overbey, "personal lives have no real importance." So Nottola drops from sight for long stretches of the story. His grown son, the construction engineer responsible for the building collapse, vanishes for the entire length of the film, going into hiding after one brief and shadowy appearance. As for Nottola's feelings about his son, they never rise into view at all. At the moment of crisis, when Nottola confronts the need to give up either his son or his business and political interests, Rosi refuses even to suggest the character's interior life. Instead, while Nottola remains silent and does almost nothing, Rosi's camera prowls around his deserted office and peers out the window, across the darkened city, for almost three full minutes, as Piero Piccioni's musical score rises on the soundtrack: a cloud of brass, gathering amorphously like a headache, until it's broken through by a jazzy, threatening twang, as if an electric bass were being kicked downstairs.

Perhaps this last bit of description seems prompted by a delirium, but it, too, is typical of the response that Rosi can elicit, even at his most analytical. Witness the first three scenes of Hands over the City. Although this sequence rapidly sums up the Neapolitan system of corruption—confirming, before the opening credits roll, the whole argument that De Vita will make—the effect is not so much expository as giddy. There are wild jumps in space and scale (as when we see Nottola's hands, huge and in close-up, against the distant background); soaring overhead panoramas, first of an architectural model and then of the city itself; sudden cuts that whip you in and out of conversations being held on the run; and brief though necessary pauses for breath, during which time you may study the faces of a corporate-political rogues' gallery. This series of jolts goes a long way toward explaining how Rosi gets away with his dialogue: half of it council-chamber oratory and the other half backroom plotting in which characters elaborate on matters that in real life would be left unspoken. When the words by themselves would be a tough slog, Rosi's bravura filmmaking keeps you exhilarated.

All this is normal in Rosi's work from this period, and yet Hands over the City is also atypical in important ways. It is, first of all, coherent. The gaps in the record and the unsolved riddles that figure in Rosi's other investigative films, making them so tantalizing, play no role in Hands over the City. From the very beginning, you know who's doing what to whom, and for how much money. De Vita knows, too, even before the inquiry begins. He just can't get anybody to care, except for one council member from the center party.

The other big anomaly is Nottola himself. As with other central figures in Rosi's films, there is grandeur in his lawlessness; he takes big risks and pushes ahead against strong forces. But those others destroy themselves. Nottola wins.

So the circle of the film closes, as does the circle of corruption. The camera pulls back through the city council chamber, taking its leave of a shrinking De Vita, who goes on talking and talking uselessly; and then you see the same woozy flyover shots as at the beginning. For a filmmaker who had only recently provoked an investigation into Mafia influence, this may seem a strangely despairing conclusion. And yet, though Rosi seems to be throwing up his hands, the exhilaration of Hands over the City carries through, even at the end. You leave the movie feeling invigorated, not cynical.

A triumph of form over content? I'd rather think of it as a triumph of love. Of the films that constitute Rosi's first mature body of work—the series of political films that predate Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979) and Three Brothers (1980)—Hands over the City is the only one shot principally in Naples and made principally about Naples. It radiates affection for the streets and alleys of Rosi's hometown, its workingmen and housewives--even, at times, for its grotesque and funny grafters. If Rosi protested against the horrible changes the Nottolas were working on Naples, maybe he did so not only for the sake of principle but also because he didn't want to see the place change.

As evidence, I refer you to Rosi's late film Neapolitan Diary (1992), in which he shows himself returning to Naples for a screening of Hands over the City at the architecture school. At the end, the aged Rosi drifts off to sleep. What he sees, in his dream, is the tremendous sequence of the building collapse in Hands over the City—but this time, the film runs in reverse, the bricks rise up, and the wonderful, crummy old tenement stands again.

Stuart Klawans is the film critic for the Nation and the author of Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order and Left in the Dark: Film Reviews and Essays, 1988–2001.