Hands Over the City (Rosi, 1963)

Francesco Rosi’s angry Hands Over the City feels pretty relevant in 2015, though, in fact, the narrative of political corruption at the expense of an uninformed, or poor, or distant from the political process citizenry is timeless.

Rod Steiger is great as Edoardo Nottola, a city councilman whose illicit construction causes the collapse of some neighboring tenement buildings.

Rosi, cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo (whose work I know from some Antonioni and Fellini films), and production designer Sergio Canevari get some nice, high contrast black and white images, with settings that are classy and often busy.

Rosi likes crowded frames like these:

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They feel like something from the Czech New Wave or a Costa-Gavras film.

Here’s a great scene between Nottola and another member of his right-wing party. Rosi frames Nottola in a medium close-up. The camera slowly tracks left to right, passing his companion in the foreground, changing the 180 line, and moving to something closer to a medium over-the-shoulder:

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The two men are have a pretty strong argument and that 180 line shift adds some tension and plays with the balance of power. One thing I really like about Rosi’s blocking is that it switches on the dime. Like here, where that smooth track makes it feel like things are going to stay visually fluid. But that’s not what happens.

Instead, Rosi whip pans right to left showing the back of the room, suddenly charging the scene with some real dynamism, the movement motivated by the other councilman’s point:

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The camera then quickly whips back the way it came-

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-landing in this MCU in profile:

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The set design in these images is great. Blue prints, city images surround the characters, placing them literally both as builders and dwellers, but larger than life to both. There’s something surreal about those backgrounds: everything that these guys are talking about (blueprints, scale models, enlarged photos) are replicas, plastic. It further distances them from reality.

Nottola shoots up-

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-approaches his colleague-

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-and lands in this too-close 2-shot, each framed by skyscrapers, the distance between them at once nearly-nil and an entire city block:

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The scene ends with this face-off. It looks like the other guy has been literally backed into a corner:

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But that changes when he just opens the door (Keys to the city? Leaving for reality?) and walks through the blueprint and out:

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The change in camera pace is really nice here. Oftentimes pacing is so tied to average shot length, so it’s nice to see Rosi shift things in another way.

Following this scene is a slow, curious one. Nottola plods around the room and onto the balcony:

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He doesn’t say anything. It’s deliberate and it almost feels like he’s wandering. But the score by Pierro Piccioni is really dominant during this moment, creating an odd offset. It also feels “mark-less” as though Rosi just gave Stieger free range to move as he wanted – though that’s likely just the sign of a confident actor.

There’s another awesome example of the discontinuity of sound and image later in the film. Nottola wanders the city on election night, but soon the camera departs from him. Rosi cuts around the city, to crowds, to politicians, to celebrations. The images are dark and chiaroscuro. The haloed lights, wide frames, silhouettes, and sometimes shaky camera make it feel like a departure from the fiction we’ve seen before.

But the audio – aside from one moment of diegetic applause – is only distant murmuring. It’s unsettling, as though the throngs in the frame are voiceless, the celebrations are false, or the city’s voice has been muted for a seething undercurrent:

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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