The Subject Is Rosi

Sragow: What compelled you to make Hands Over the City? Does the story refer to a specific disaster in Naples?

Rosi: One needed the political willingness to denounce what was happening in cities like Naples throughout Italy and Europe, right under everybody's eyes. The leftist press was doing it in a way, but a movie was the most wide-reaching and forthright means to make urban problems dramatically known to the greatest number of people in Italy and the world. I decided to create a film that would clarify how a city unraveled by chaotic and illegal planning would have to risk to change not just its face, but its soul. With the writer Raffaele La Capria, my friend and fellow Neapolitan, I placed the film's dramatic core inside the City Council, where they make the political and administrative decisions related to the life and the future of the city and its citizens. What was the right-wing developer, Nottola (played by Steiger), saying on the screen to his party colleagues? "I have to be in charge of building because I don't trust anybody. I have to become the head of city planning because I have to take over the building contracts. Since I am the person responsible for the administration of these contracts, I have to bring them to fruition myself as the contractor." It's an obvious example of collusion among politics, business, and crime (here, the Camorra). The film anticipated the phenomenon that emerged as a scandal in Italy 30 years later -- Tangentopoli, or Tangent-gate. Tangenti are kickbacks that people in the government were getting to issue contracts. Nottola was taking care of his own business; so were the members of his political party, who took advantage of it with the kickbacks. The narrative structure of the film followed the lines of the demonstration of a theorem: How can a square meter of farmland -- at the borders of the suburbs of a great city -- multiply uncontrollably in value -- in the interest of a group of unscrupulous speculators -- at the expense of the public -- through a political and administrative decision taken in the City Council?

Sragow: I think Hands Over the City is important and exciting for Americans to see today, because it touches on the dangers of treating bipartisan decision-making as an end in itself. In your movie, responsibility for the profit-taking and negligence in city planning falls as much on the politicians in the center, who drift between the left and the right according to public opinion, as it does on Steiger. Aren't you calling for honesty even more than for a reform ideology?

Rosi: The doctor who belongs to the center group dissociates himself from it when it supports the right-wing builder -- Steiger's character, Nottola. The doctor does this for moral reasons and in the interest of all the citizens. He wants it to be possible to reconcile the dictates of ethics with those of politics. That was the spirit of the movie, born in a moment when, at a national level, the left was inserting itself into the government, accompanied by many hopes.

Sragow: At the end of Hands Over the City, Nottola is still pulling the strings. And the last line of Lucky Luciano is, "Everyone will find themselves back at the same goddamn place where we started." Isn't one of your points that things don't change?

Rosi: Despite doubts as to how and when things will change, one needs to continue to be vigilant and act to have them change, and in the best way for the lives of the country and its citizens. That should be the purpose of politics, justice, and science.

Sragow: There's also a positive sense in which things don't change in your movies -- when they link up with the eternal. That happens most strongly in Christ Stopped at Eboli and Three Brothers, but also in Salvatore Giuliano, when the splendor of the timeless landscape mocks the ugliness of the political squabbles. Was this combination of classical and modern ambience -- of Euripides and Brecht -- part of what drew you to make Salvatore Giuliano?

Rosi: In Salvatore Giuliano, I testified to the dirty agreements between corrupt powers (the Mafia, the bandits, the police) and tied them to the first political mass assassination in Italy -- the massacre of the Communists at Portella delle Ginestre -- which is still one of Italy's unsolved mysteries. But great natural landscapes and certain immobile environments carry with them centuries of history; they often manage to offer a breath of "greatness" to events that, because of human violence, would otherwise only provoke horror.

Sragow: Anglo-Saxon critics often treated Salvatore Giuliano as a "puzzle" film. That's partly because they were unfamiliar with what you were dramatizing, like the way the code of silence (omerta) extends even to the bandits in the prisoners' dock. Didn't Italian audiences respond more directly? Is it true that the release of the film instigated an inquiry into the Mafia by Palermo's Regional Government?

Rosi: I was convinced that the only way in which I could have put together cause and effects was to structure Salvatore Giuliano as an investigation. For European audiences, the tiny percentage of obscurity deriving from this decision increased their fascination for the story. When it came out in Italy, the film was a great success, as it was immediately in France. The film did provoke the decision to constitute a parliamentary commission of investigation into the phenomenon of the Mafia in Sicily with the law dated Dec. 20, 1962, one that had been delayed many times.

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