I’VE DEVELOPED A slightly wary crush on the mise en scène of the Italian filmmaker Francesco Rosi, particularly as displayed in his two famous films from the early 1960s: Salvatore Giuliano, the 1962 Venice prize-winner which first brought its director to world attention, and Hands Over the City, his go-for-broke 1963 follow-up.
A romantic leftist who first found work as an assistant to Luchino Visconti on the Sicilian fishermen epic La Terra Trema (1948), Rosi inflected the conventions of neorealist drama with a subtly essayistic impulse. His films actively sought answers to questions about the so-called “Southern problem” in Italy, the fact that money and industry were concentrated mainly in the Northern part of the country while the masses of the mezzogiorno, Italy’s impoverished South, lived a deprived existence. But he never gave the audience these answers himself, and he knew that finding them would take a lot of digging and a lot of hard work. “I think films should not end but continue to grow inside us,” Rosi said in a 1994 interview—the words of a truehearted progressive.
Salvatore and Hands Over the City are Rosi’s major works, so harsh and withholding that they are nearly overwhelmed at times by the dissonant scores provided by Piero Piccioni, whose aggressively discomforting music fills in much of the strangled emotion in Rosi’s political opportunists. But the jagged, semi-documentary pieces of Rosi’s films are held together by the compositional grace of his ever apt and always evocative camera placement.
The eponymous corpse (above) and non-professional ensemble (below) of Salvatore Giuliano (1961).
THE TITULAR BANDIT, Mafia boss and Sicilian freedom fighter of Salvatore Giuliano is seen primarily as a corpse, a conceit at the heart of Rosi’s politicized, anti-psychological riff on the biopic genre.
A framing sequence re-stages the famous, final photograph of the real Giuliano and is then intercut with chronologically shuffled scenes inspired by the then recent past. Rosi’s oblique and elliptical portrait of his largely unseen protagonist is also, emphatically, a call to arms for the mezzogiorno, and Rosi mainly casts the film with non-professionals from the region, some of whom were actually involved in the events portrayed. Salvatore Giuliano is not the story of a man but the story of cities and countries and all of the people in them, and so it is necessarily more diffuse than most movies, and much harder to classify.
Rosi frames every shot in this film for maximum impact, and his compositions sometimes feel almost too balanced, flirting with mere pictorialism, but there is always a discernable intellectual query behind each image that makes us ponder where we are and why. Stubbornly, Rosi refuses to involve his audience in individual psychology, and he instinctively resists the safety net of narrative. The constantly moving formations of people on screen can seem like pure visual abstraction, but the questioning at the heart of Salvatore is concrete, dedicated to unearthing information; this is not at all an existential film, which would have put it in line with the smart-set fashion of its time.
Rosi specializes in scenes of violence and misery that he makes somewhat beautiful with his camera. It’s as if by aestheticizing suffering he wishes not only to make it instructive, to show it is as the avoidable result of specific political vendettas and cover-ups, but also, through his camera, to ennoble it.
Corrupt city councilman and land developer Edoardo Nottola (Rod Steiger) surveys Naples from his office above and in the streets below in Hands Over the City (1963).
THE OVERHEAD VIEWS of Naples in Hands Over the City, particularly in the helicopter shots that open and close the film, feel like Rosi is taking in all of his native city in one fell swoop of widescreen. In the key scenes that take place in a city council chamber, Rosi keeps his camera above the action most of the time and frames a series of deep space shots that teem with life, activity and action in every tiny bit of the frame. For these city council scenes in Hands Over the City, and for the heart-poundingly realistic set piece toward the beginning where a large building slowly starts to collapse onto people below, Rosi builds up his own style of filmmaking that takes in as much visually as the camera can possibly record.
These are films that demand the largest screens, and this feels not only like a formal necessity or stylistic nicety but a political imperative to look beyond the immediate and to look beyond yourself. Look to the very root of the problem, Rosi insists, as he takes us into bureaucrat’s offices where he dispassionately observes all of their frankly impersonal, jaded wheeling and dealing. “See how democracy works?” asks a smirking politician at one point, as he distributes money randomly to desperate, hungry-looking peasant women, a helpless joke that seems to call for systematic political change.
Rosi also served as an assistant to Michelangelo Antonioni, and surely the dance-like stock exchange scenes in Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962) influenced the city council scenes in Hands Over the City, but Rosi only goes for an ostentatiously all-out visual effect when he really wants to make a point and make it stick with us. After the shoddy building collapses, there’s an unforgettable moment when the left wing members of the Neapolitan City Council accuse the right wing of having blood on their hands. Almost in unison, the right-wing members cry, “Our hands are clean!” and all of them raise their hands up in a gesture of theatrical solidarity, which Rosi amplifies by immediately cutting to a reverse shot of their backs as all these corrupt hands flutter in the air.
Franco Rosi (right) with Belinda Lee and Renato Salvatori on the set of The Swindlers (1959).
AFTER THESE PICTURES, Rosi’s films went in a somewhat more commercial direction, though they stayed basically true to his dogged interest in the workings of governmental bureaucracy. The Mattei Affair (1972) and Lucky Luciano (1973) are patient, rather tired examinations of two charismatic but empty men, played in both cases by the preening, opaque Gian Maria Volonté. His last film to date is The Truce (1997), an adaptation of Primo Levi’s memoir about life after Auschwitz built around Rosi’s typically careful compositions and John Turturro’s watchful face.
It’s hard to imagine a Rosi film about the antics of current Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (comedy is hardly his forte), but if he were able to make such a picture, it would no doubt ask us to find the source of Berlusconi’s corruption for ourselves.
Dan Callahan is a Contributing Editor to Alt Screen.
“Citizen Rosi: The Films of Francesco Rosi” is playing at BAMcinématek August 3-21.