Sunday, June 09, 2019

Allan Fish Online Film Festival

Hands Over the City (1963, Italy, directed by Francesco Rosi)

Francesco Rosi’s 1963 film Hands Over the City (Le Mani sulla città) feels contemporary despite being released almost 6 decades ago. Given the film’s topic of corruption and urban sprawl, it will always feel contemporary as long as politicians spend more time slinging mud at their rivals and lying to protect their crimes while letting innocent civilians suffer. The words “urban sprawl” are part of our everyday language yet it was Rosi’s film that gave an incisive look into how such a situation could occur. The city in Rosi’s film is his beloved Naples but as the film dives into the close connection between city planners, politicians, land developers and businessmen, it becomes evident that there is a universal aspect to the film.

The opening shots of Hands Over the City begin with a few aerial shots of Naples which highlight the city as a maze of buildings. After the opening minutes, we learn that it will get 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. The businessmen can get away with this because 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.

There is a lot of money to go around when the city expands outside the core because there is more investment needed to provide necessary infrastructure such as water, electricity, parks, etc. The film shows that all the businessmen involved in such organizations have friends on the city council. Handshakes and promises are the two things that decide the 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 development results in an apartment wall crashing down resulting in a few deaths.

An investigation is conducted to uncover the real reasons for this building's collapse. However, there is a lack of interest in the city council to determine why the building wall collapsed. Only one councilman accuses his fellow colleagues of having "dirty hands" regarding the land dealings. This results in one of the film's lasting images where 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 exists in each political party. Politicians today spend a lot of time lying to the media in order to prove their innocence even though there is plenty of evidence which implicates them. Their lies are akin to the “our hands are clean” image.

The film gives a fly-on-the-wall perspective to the audience and at times it feels like we are being led into a secret world about how politics really works. As per the production notes, Rosi got some of the city councilmen to play themselves in the movie. That adds a bit more to the realism of the heated council scenes. The core discussions and fighting between different sides can be extrapolated to our world and can explain why different political parties can never find a common ground and why some issues never get resolved.

Francesco Rosi returned to Naples in 1992 to film a documentary (Diario napoletano) to see how the city had developed compared to 1963’s 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. As it turns out, in some cases, things unfolded in Naples as per the movie's fictional situations and the sprawl got worse over the decades after the film was made. Some of the professors in the documentary offered solutions to improve things but it became 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. Unfortunately, Naples is not alone in this problem. The issue of urban sprawl is a problem impacting major cities across most continents. In this regard, Hands Over the City is still an essential and relevant film for our society. The dynamics of how each city chooses to expand may vary from the situation in the film but it is clear that plenty of the decisions made for new land development are driven by money. We can only guess at some of the real discussions that take place in a city but Rosi's film depicts some situations for us to ponder upon.