Sunday, November 04, 2007

Francesco Rosi

The Political Cinema of Francesco Rosi

It is always exciting to discover the films of a talented director. But I do feel that the timing of such a discovery makes a big difference -- If a person discovers a director's films too early in one's personal cinematic journey, then one might not appreciate the works as much. Such is the case with my discovery of the Italian director Francesco Rosi. About three weeks ago I had not heard of him even though he started directing films back in the 1950's. But if I had discovered Rosi's films about two years ago, I would not have fully grasped their significance. And now I can truly add Rosi's film Le Mani sulla città (Hands over the City) on my list of all time favourite movies.

Corruption, City Planning, Land Development and Urban Sprawl:
The opening shots of 1963's Le Mani sulla città begins with a few aerial shots of Naples. We can already see that the city is a maze of buildings.

And after the opening few minutes, we learn it will get even worse. That is because we are shown an informal meeting between a few businessmen who all want to profit from fast land development. The city council is about to propose expanding along the city's core, which makes sense from an urban development point of view. But these businessmen and land developers want to build outside the city because the land is cheap and they can earn more profits in the future. How can such a plan happen? Simple. One of the leading land developers is also on the city's board and he has a lot of friends on the council. The promise of fast money is enough to swing the votes in his direction.

If a city expands outside the core, there is more investment needed to provide necessary infrastructure as water, electricity, parks, etc. But it so happens that all the business men involved in such organizations have friends on the city council. Handshakes and promises -- these are the two things that decide a city's future. Land permits and architectural plans are passed in a matter of days as opposed to the normal waiting time of 6 months. One of the consequences of this quick developments results in an apartment wall crashing down resulting in a few deaths.

This incident kick-starts the film's story. An investigation is conducted as to the real reasons for this building's collapse. But there is lack of interest in the city council to determine why the building wall collapsed. Only one councilman bravely stands up and accuses his fellow colleagues of having "dirty hands" regarding the land dealings. This results in one of the film's most lasting images.

All the councilmen shout "our hands are clean" and wave their 'clean' hands at the honest councilman. As the investigation continues, it is apparent that the truth won't ever come out. Because behind each lie is a handshake and a promise. Watching this film, one can truly appreciate the complicated series of lies and promises that make up each political party. In the film, everyone speaks the same language yet they have trouble reaching a conclusion. One can imagine if in a room, there are people who speak 10 different languages (with an additional language translator for each person), how difficult it would be to reach a decision. What is fascinating about the film is how the audience is made to feel like a fly on the wall listening in on discussions that one won't have access to.

The issue of urban sprawl is not only relevant to North America but to plenty of other Asian, African and South American cities. In that regards, even though Hands over the City was made more than 4 decades ago, it is one of the most relevant films in today's times. The dynamics of how each city chooses to spread in one direction as opposed to another may vary but it is clear that plenty of the decisions made for new land development are driven by money. We can only guess on a few such discussions but Rosi's film depicts some such situations to ponder upon.

Personal Significance: Over the last few years, I have begun to appreciate the richness of a verité style cinema where more effort is placed on allowing the audience to learn about the characters from their expressions and actions. Hands over the City may not be a typical verité film but at no point does it seem like scripted cinema either. As per the production notes, Rosi got some of the city councilmen to play themselves in the movie. That certainly adds a bit more to the originality of the heated council scenes.

A city after 3 decades: Rosi returned to Naples in 1992 to film a documentary (Diario napoletano) and see how the city developed as per his 1963 film Hands over the City. The first part of the documentary takes place in a university class where Rosi is presenting the movie to students, some city planners, professors and architects. It is amazing to see how things actually unfolded in Naples as per the movie's fictional situations and in fact, the sprawl got worse. Some of the professors offered some solutions as to how to improve things but it was clear that there is no over-night solution. When a city grows outward, traffic congestion is one of the worst problems. Driving through the city, Rosi was able to truly get a feel for how bad the situation is. But Naples is not alone in this problem.
After watching Hands over the City, I made an effort to track down more films by Rosi and I was lucky in finding 3 more.

An outlaw or a political pawn?:

The 1962 film Salvatore Giuliano focuses on the separation struggle of Sicily from the Italian mainland The film shows how the mafia played a part in allowing the Allies to land in Sicily during WWII and helped in the toppling of the Fascist regime. The new Sicilian government wanted autonomy from Italy, so they followed the example of Garibaldi in enlisting thugs and outlaws to fight for their cause. One such popular outlaw was Salvatore Giuliano, whose men were needed to launch a separatist movement.

What is interesting about this film is that we never really see Salvatore Giuliano. We basically see his gang and the movie focuses on his right-hand man. This approach works quite well as Giuliano's absence shows the true power of his legend -- Powerful men want to meet him, the locals worship him and the police want him dead. Just like the building collapse in Hands over the City, one incident kick-starts the entire film's crucial events. In this case, it is the assassination attempt of Italian policemen.

Giuliano's men are patiently waiting for the policemen to appear.

The gun is aimed at the door.

Once the door opens, a whistle is the cue for all the street lights to go off, followed by a succession of gun-fire.

Then the war between cops and outlaws truly starts.

The camera shows us a view-point from the outlaws guns on a few occasions.

The camera only focuses on a police gun in one scene and even then, their weapon is not active.

This approach of showing the gun fired from the outlaws perspective highlights an important aspect of the story. We see the outlaws firing the shots, but who ordered those shots to be fired? The court trials in the film attempt to answer these questions.

Thugs for hire: In the film, the Sicilian government hires thugs to win a war for them. But the officials fail to consider that once they get their freedom, what will they they do with the outlaws? Do they assimilate them or simply kill them off? Salvatore Giuliano shows one such approach taken by the. Interestingly, this tactic seems all too familiar given current international governments (recruit thugs to overthrow a government and then persecute the thugs). Also, using a model of hiring thugs to win elections is a fundamental problem in most democracies as well.

A mellow, subtle political touch:

The next two Rosi film I tackled were 1979's Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli) and 1981's Tre fratelli (Three Brothers). I could not find any films in between 1963's Hands over the City and his 1979 effort. The passage of time appears to have changed Rosi's outlook & approach as both ..Eboli.. and Three Brothers have a more softer and relaxed touch. Both films are intelligent musings of a man looking at Italian society and pondering about the mistakes of the past political regimes.

Cristo si è fermato a Eboli is based on writer Carlo Levi's memoir about his exile in Eboli, a town in Southern Italy.

Levi was exiled during WWII because of his political beliefs and served time in the isolated town until the war was over. The movie features plenty of intelligent discussions regarding northern-southern political issues along with questions about the problems of peasants and the war. One of the fundamental problems that Levi sees is regarding Italy's imperialistic adventures in Africa. In the film, Levi only sees struggling farmers around him. The farmers can't earn a living so they are forced to immigrate to America. So Levi questions how Italy's African war will help the local population? A war costs money and will only increase taxes of the local population.

There are plenty of memorable quotes in the film but these few highlight the frustrations of Southern Italy during the war.
"Naples is our city because it's the capital of misery."
"Now we go to Naples, only to leave for America."
"Rome is the capital of the rich, nothing good comes out of there."
"New York would be our capital...if we could have one."

There is a sequence which illustrates the tranquil beauty of the film. In the following shots, a policeman is walking towards the town one early morning. Initially, we only see fog. But in a matter of a few seconds, the fog slowly lifts to reveal the buildings. Simple yet beautiful!

Three Brothers is a tender film that looks at the relationship of three brothers with their father against the backdrop of a changing Italian political landscape. Each brother has completely different views of the world -- Rocco wants a peaceful world where all of humanity lives in harmony; the youngest brother (Nicola) is tired of the existing regime and believes in revolution and violence to cause a change whereas the eldest brother (Raffaelle) is a respected judge who believes in using the law to bring justice. Even though Raffaelle (closet to the camera in the following shot) is the eldest, his views are in between his two brothers.

Raffaelle is able to recoincile Rocco's peaceful views and Nicola's need for violence along with his own desire to use the law to cause a change. The film's best moments are when the characters express their true feelings about Italy's political problems. Most of these conservations take place in quiet and tender settings -- bedroom or a dinner table. While outside on the streets, Italy is buzzing with revolution.
Ratings of all films (out of 10):

  • Le Mani sulla città (1963): 10
  • Salvatore Giuliano (1962): 9
  • Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (1979): 8.5
  • Tre fratelli (1981): 8.5
  • Diario napoletano: 7.5
    The North-South divide:
  • I was truly mesmerized by Hands over the City. But I could not help wonder why I had never heard of Francesco Rosi before? In fact, it was pure luck that my eyes feel on this DVD. In the 60's, the world appeared to focus on only three Italian directors -- Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni & Roberto Rossellini. I have been trying to think of reasons why Rosi was not as popular. One of the reasons that come to mind is that Fellini, Antonioni and Rossellini all came from Northern Italy whereas Rosi was from Naples. In all of the four Rosi films that I saw, questions about the North vs South always came up. Example, this quote from Christ Stopped at Eboli: "Rome is the capital of the rich, nothing good comes out of there." One frequent discussion in the films was that people in the North were not aware of the situations in the south and made decisions without factoring the south. As a result, the south struggled in poverty and plenty of people were forced to leave for America.

    Personally, I first learned about this North-South issue through Italian soccer. I fell in love with Italian soccer at the same time as Napoli (soccer team from Naples) won the Italian league title for the second time in their history (1990), with their first title coming back in 1987. Both wins were thanks to Diego Maradona, the beloved Argentinian soccer player. These wins shook up the monopoly of the league title held by the Northern teams. Now, this north-south divide was really put to the test when Italy hosted Argentina in the 1990 World Cup semi-final in Naples. Italy eventually lost a hard-fought match on penalties but the Italian players complained afterwards that if the match was played in any Italian city other than Naples, they would have won. It was rumoured that a majority of the Italian fans in the stadium that night were cheering for Maradona, hero for their local Napoli team, as opposed to giving Italy their full support. Truth or fiction? This memory stayed with me. Now, coupled with Rosi's films, I am forced to give this issue more thought.
    Political relevance today:
    If I had to pick two movies which accurately depict current world problems, I would have to go with Rosi's Hands over the City & Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966). Even though these movies were made in the 60's, the issues shown in the movie have repeated themselves countless times over the last few decades.

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