Saturday, March 12, 2011

#355: Hands Over the City

(Francesco Rosi, 1963)

I enjoyed Hands Over the City much more than I enjoyed Rosi's other film in the collection, Salvatore Giuliano. This is despite the fact that his earlier film is more widely praised and clearly the technical and thematic roadmap for the later film. I think this is most likely because Hands Over the City is about not necessarily more universal concepts, but concepts that are more relatable to my specific experience. Living my whole life in a country that is thankfully politically stable (if tragically politically stagnant), it is with a scholar's eye rather than a democratic heart that I view Salvatore and his quest for freedom. On the other hand (no pun intended) this film is about something that has affected and will continue to affect my life: the corruption and immorality that surround the redevelopment of cities in democratic society. In a larger context, the film is about much more than that, as the portrait that is painted expands beyond the basic plot and begins to explore the true nature of capitalist democracies and the relationship between the rich and powerful.

Having been to Naples, I know firsthand what the end result was of the dealings that are dramatized here. While the city still pulses with the energy of the typical Italian center, it is apparent within moments of stepping off the train that something is not right. Naples is a city interrupted, a controlled experiment in development birthed from an unsustainable system, its residents the victims of that experiment. Watching Hands Over the City, one is constantly reminded of that failure (which has only grown over time; see Gomorrah), but also reminded of similar experiments gone wrong - whether through corruption, greed, or simply bad intentions - in the US.

Rosi shoots, scores, and scripts Hands Over the City as a murder mystery, though it's unclear which one of many victims he's hinting at (democracy? integrity? Naples? Italy?). The many dimly lit back rooms that his villains slide through on their way to ultimate victory seem created for the purpose of abuse, of murder, as if there is no other way for these men of power to operate. The film's final moments don't provide any easy answers, and Rosi is ultimately indicting the system rather than the individuals who take advantage of it. There are so many times during Hands Over the City when the people have an opportunity to take back their government but choose not to (the most clear cut of which is obviously the election) that it's hard to place blame on the men who exploit their ignorance and loyalty. In the end, we get the leaders we deserve, which is the gift and the curse of democracy.

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