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The Criterion Collection presents
Hands Over the City (1963)

"I'm the only one I can trust."
- Nottola (Rod Steiger)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: October 31, 2006

Stars: Rod Steiger
Director: Francesco Rosi

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:40m:54s
Release Date: October 24, 2006
UPC: 037429187524
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Who ever would have guessed that urban planning could make for such gripping drama? Francesco Rosi's smart and driven film finds ways to make urban renewal and parliamentary procedure the stuff of a tautly told tale, and it's as much a case study for a class in architecture as it is an example of the evolution of Neorealism in the 1960s.

Rod Steiger stars as Nottola, a sort of Neapolitan Robert Moses—he's both a member of the city's legislature and one of its most prominent builders, and he has learned how to work the levers of power to his financial advantage. He promises to rid the city of slums, and to replace them with state-of-the-art high rises, with a view of the bay for everyone. But any suspicions that he is cutting corners to line his own pockets is grimly realized when one of his buildings, in the Vico Sant'Andrea, collapses, killing two and maiming another. The shots are harrowing, and unintentionally resonant with images from a later time—looking at blocks' worth of city dwellers fleeing as a nearby building crumbles to the ground, throwing off clouds of dust and killing an unknown number can only bring to mind the footage from downtown Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001. In any event, the collapse sets off a legislative firestorm, with Nottola and his allies trying to cobble together a center/right coalition and elect a new mayor while fending off the baying cries from those on the left that the people are being sold out.

The collusion between government and big business in the pursuit of grotesque personal wealth is nothing new; nor are buck-passing bureaucrats, nor the manner in which a single incident can give a face to deeply held public predispositions about the lack of probity in our public servants. But Rosi is marvelous at humanizing institutions, and he's got a fascination with the procedural—it's the kind of thing that shows up in movies usually only when looking at police departments, but his eye for the ebb and flow of parliamentary maneuvering and of private desires played out in the public space makes for some fascinating viewing.

The whole film is in Italian, and all of Steiger's dialogue is dubbed—it's as strange a sight as seeing Italian come out of the mouth of Burt Lancaster in The Leopard, but Steiger is still a bull, and Rosi blends him in surprisingly well with all the Italian faces. Carlo Fermariello is especially good as De Vita, the leftist leader who calls out Nottola for the Trumpesque self-promoter he is; the closest that Hollywood came to moviemaking like this would be, I suppose, something like Advise and Consent, which seems ham-handed and amateurish in comparison. Hands Over the City is also very much a boys' club, with women around only occasionally as arm candy; it's of its time and would no doubt play out differently in our age, but greed and fortunes and crime are never very far away when vast tracts of urban real estate are involved.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Rosi's closeup footage is more striking than his panoramic shots, but the whole thing is very well transferred—there's enough grain to provide richness, and you'll almost find yourself coughing just from looking at the wafts coming out of those proverbial smoke-filled rooms.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: These Italian politicians do love to shout at one another, and much of what they say is lost in the cacophony; but if you're reading along, you'll notice only an occasional bit of buzzing.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Documentaries
3 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. 2nd Rosi film on Naples (see below)
  2. accompanying booklet
  3. color bars
Extras Review: The centerpiece of the extras on Disc Two makes this set essentially a double feature—in 1992, an Italian television network commissioned Rosi to make Neapolitan Diary (01h:29m:02s), revisiting the themes of Hands Over the City nearly forty years later. In some respects he's working on a broader canvas—there's an emphasis on street life, the give and take between petty thieves and dealers and the cops looking to round them up—and it's also more overtly postmodern. Rosi himself is a character in the story, for instance, and at one point goes to an architectural school to join the students for a screening of Hands Over the City. I'll admit to liking the director's work when it's more earnest and less clever, but still, there's plenty here that makes it worth watching, particularly his portrait of what four decades of greed and mismanagement have done to Naples.

In an accompanying interview (13m:39s), Rosi reflects on notions of realism, and on the challenges of political filmmaking. Italian film critic Tullio Kezich, in another short (05m:06s), makes a brief case for Rosi as an underappreciated master, and filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin does much the same (13m:04s), though his is more of a look at the psychological aspects of Rosi's work, what Gorin calls "the cinema of claustrophobia." Rosi is joined by screenwriter Raffaele La Capria in an interview (15m:57s) conducted by critic Michel Ciment, in which they discuss the nature of collaboration, and especially the differences between this film and Rosi's previous feature, Salvatore Giuliano.

The accompanying booklet features an essay by Stewart Klawans on Rosi's career, and a 2004 interview with the director, in which he discusses, among other things, how much he learned from Luchino Visconti as an assistant director on La terra trema. Finally a word about the packaging: Criterion has succumbed to the unfortunate tendency to the figure eight setup, in which one disc in the set lies on top of the other. It's a recipe for scratching and damaging the discs, surely not worth the tradeoff for a marginally thinner case.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

A sharp and harsh case study of what's gone wrong in planning and building our cities, shot with all of the panache and clarity of the best of Neorealism. The bonus disc adds resonance, and the whole package is heartily recommended to all urban dwellers, especially the future Jane Jacobses and Santiago Calatravas of our world.


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