Criterion Sunday 355: Le mani sulla città (Hands Over the City, 1963)

In a way I’m surprised there haven’t been more films about the decisions that lie behind the construction of the cities most of us (in this country, on this continent, on the planet) live in. After all, the decisions that shape our built environment can be some of the most decisive around our quality of life, what jobs we do, where our aspirations lie, and most of these decisions are ultimately political ones. It doesn’t take a country with as much of a history of political volubility and public corruption as Italy for it to be applicable to the rest of the world, because the decisions about new housing projects are often the most nefarious of deals wherever you live, and so the subject matter of this film has barely aged in the 57 years since it was made.

Of course, watching Hands Over the City you get a little sense of why there aren’t more films like this, because all the major players in this drama look sort of the same — all well-groomed patrician men of a certain age, who all look the same in black-and-white aside perhaps from the way they wear their hear or the glasses they have on their face (and even then, there’s not a great variety). Perhaps the situation may be different now, but not much different really. The men who make these decisions, who hold the power and the money, and decide how we will live are often these men, and this film revolves around one developer (Rod Steiger), also a city councilman, who has access to the levers of government that means decisions on his projects are fast-tracked (“approved in three days!” rages one left-wing council member, played by Carlo Fermariello, explaining that most decisions of this nature come in a timeframe of six months to two years). When his project leads to the collapse of a building in a slum area, killing multiple people, it leads to some intense questioning — but because they’re poor people, it all feels like fairly superficial, gestural politics.

There’s a docudrama element to this, then, because even if the film is fictional, a lot of the scenarios are drawn very much from real life — if you’re willing to look for it, there’s a lot of drama in city planning (as films like Chinatown were only too aware). And so, though it takes a little while to pick out the players from this sea of fancy suits, Rosi’s film about a corrupt real estate developer, retains its power and potency.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Francesco Rosi; Writers Rosi, Raffaelle La Capria and Enzo Forcella; Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo; Starring Rod Steiger, Carlo Fermariello, Salvo Randone; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 20 September 2020.

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