Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Le mani sulla città

One of the best films I’ve ever seen, Le mani sulla città (the insipidly translated UK title being Hands Over the City) goes into the uncharted territory of a film not having any representative characters: instead of characters that one could love or hate, instead of the rise and fall of one man or family or group, this brilliant film explores the nexus between politicians, law-makers and builders on a broader scale but constructing its gripping story around one particular incident: the collapse of a residential building in a poor, crowded area, coveted by those for whom deaths and misery are calculated in terms of profits and losses. While watching the film, there were times when floated through my mind certain scenes, subplots or ways of filming particularly from Z, La battaglia di Algeri, and Dilip Kumar’s Mashaal, and yet it is a testimony to this extraordinarily tight (but not sparse) film, that it stands head and shoulders above the three cited ones, gems in their own right.

One of the surprising and best things that director Rosi does is not to let have Rod Steiger, in whom the corruption is seen to be invested ultimately, a lot of screen time; neither does Steiger have many dialogues or even much acting to do, except keeping moping his brow all the time and looking tense. In many ways, he reminds me of Richard Burton here, who used to have a very similar acting method. The film is rather kept on the edge by a bunch of non-professionals, with Carlo Fermariello playing the stellar role of De Vita - the leftist politician who rejects (or who doesn’t see any profit in supporting) Steiger till the end. Interestingly, it is not De Vita’s character but Balsamo’s, who also happens to be a doctor, that seems the only disinterested one amid a stinking bevy of dignitaries, who only serve to fatten themselves and their art collections at the expense of people.

The discordant music, recurring throughout the film whenever the city “buildscape” is presented to the viewer, reinforces the double image of a residential complex, crucial to the film’s understanding: profits for Steiger and his like apparently, but what we have to imagine is that there are people living and growing there. Even in the case of the building collapse, there is no focus on the human suffering or fear in the aftermath: Rosi leaves that for us to imagine, since similarly for all his political characters, except that of Balsamo, the living beings there are no more than votes - to be used at the time of elections, but otherwise to be disposed of as profitably as possible.

The film is also something very relatable for people from countries like Italy and India, with their high amount of civic corruption. Both countries also have a strong presence of mafia, an area which this film chooses not to explore (on the contrary, Mashaal does that but in doing so, forgets the politicans; Z has all the bases covered, but instead of mafia, it is just local hitmen who are used to “silence” a political opponent). Le mani sulla città is one of the rare flawless films, not least for its clear-headedness about what to include and what to exclude.

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