Film Review: ‘Hands Across The City’

An indictment

‘Hands Across The City’ (Paris Pullman Cinema)

This film has been described as Marxist. It is not. But it is a piece of brilliant angry protest at the way democracy can be brought into abuse by the workings of capitalist society. It snarls in indignant rage at the back-slapping activities and behind-the-scenes deals between right and centre parties of a city council, and it scorns the cynical attempts of the “communist” deputies to fish in troubled waters when the’ question of rehousing and land speculation hit the headlines.

Made in Italy, directed by Francesco Rosi, it stars Rod Steiger as Eduardo Nottola, the notorious building tycoon, ruthless in the pursuit of his interests and seeing everything through L (for Lira) shaped spectacles. “Money is not like a car—to be put in a garage and forgotten,” he snaps at his aide, impatient at a holdup in his plans. “It has to be fed every day like a horse.” Or in other words, time is money and every delay is a threat to his profit margins.

For Nottola is indeed after big profits and has managed to get an outsized finger in the pie when decisions are taken by the local authority on slum clearance and rebuilding in a part of Naples. He is a shrewd, flamboyant businessman-cum politician and is not afraid to use his money lavishly when buying opponents over to his side, in a bid to keep his grip on the inner junta of the city council. Early on, his activities are brought dramatically into the limelight with the collapse of a row of derelict houses on the very fringe of his building operations. Two of the occupants are killed and a young boy seriously injured —he loses both legs eventually—and everything is set for a first-class row in the council chamber, with Communist opposition leader De Vita, an eye on the coming elections, pressing for a full enquiry.

Nottola’s son is a council official, whose abuse of the site safety regulations has made him liable for prosecution, and has gone into hiding; but later on he is cheerfully handed over to the police in sacrifice to De Vita’s thirst for blood, and in cynical furtherance of his father’s interests. The film leaves no punch unpulled in its relentless portrayal of an administration riddled with corruption and political intrigue in the cause of the profit motive.

And at the end of it all, Nottola is still there, maybe a trifle bloody but certainly far from bowed. His party has lost its majority on the city council, but he has managed to ride out the storm. The new council is just as anxious to curry favour; indeed the election has been more in the nature of a reshuffling than anything else, and many of the old faces are in new places.

True, this is not a Marxist film, but it makes some telling points, and jabs away at the veneer of sickening self-righteousness masking the filth of capitalist politics. As Mayor Di-Angela says to one of the younger deputies in a rare flash of frankness: “Politics is not a moral issue. For the politician the greatest crime of all is to be defeated.” So he tries to make sure that he is not guilty of this by keeping on the right side of those with power and influence.

Then again, Nottola’s survival is symbolic rather than personal. There has been an upheaval, but the dust doesn’t take long to settle, and afterwards rich, poor and profit motive are all still with us. Yet this very significance the producers seem to have missed—or refused to face—and we are left to search in vain for an answer to the problem they have so starkly posed. To judge by the dialogue, they do not seem to have much confidence in the working class to do anything about it either, although they do concede that election times can be pretty nerve-racking for some politicians.

This aside, however, the film is worth seeing as an indictment of private property society. “The story and characters, are fictitious.” says the usual disclaimer at the end of the titles. Well, it certainly could have fooled us.

Eddie Critchfield

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