Thursday, November 21, 2013

Hands Over The City

One of the recurring themes of my writing over the years is how Hollywood and the film community portrays real estate investors and developers.  The theme is usually how they are all corrupt, politically connected, greedy, egomaniacal, and even sociopathic.

I've given dozens of examples over the years starting from the silent film days when Simon Legree type characters evict widows and orphans from their homes because the balloon payment on their mortgage is due to the present day such as the 2005 remake of The Honeymooners starring Cedric the Entertainer as Ralph Kramden and Eric Stolz as a greedy developer out to steal not just Cedric's home but his wife!

The Hollywood and film image of real estate developers is at odds with reality for two important reasons.  Many films have been, and will always be, financed by real estate money and some of Hollwood's biggest stars throughout film history have been real estate investors themselves.  (Ask Arnold Schwarzenegger for one.  Bob Hope and his friend Bing Crosby in their day were two of the largest owners of real estate in the state of California.)

Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.  Real estate profits make films which bash real estate profits.

A reader of this website recently turned me on to a brilliant film which completely codifies the film treatment of real estate developers.

Hand Over The City ("Le Mani Sulla Citta") is the stunning 1963 Italian film by director Francesco Rosi regarding development of a residential real estate project in Naples, Italy.  Classic movie bad guy actor Rod Steiger ("In the Heat of the Night" and "On the Waterfront") plays developer Edoardo Nottolo,  a politically connected member of the local city council who runs a prominent development company on the side.

The film starts with Nottolo explaining how he can earn a 5,000% instant profit on some land he owns if he can just get new zoning for it.  But immediately we learn there are problems with the deal.

Nottolo bought the land from the city at an extremely cheap price.  The land was zoned for public projects like a hospital or sports arena.  Nottola wants to build luxury housing with an ocean view for the rich while the land itself borders on one of Naples poorest neighborhoods.

When construction begins, the vibration from a pile driver putting in a new foundation causes an old apartment building to collapse, killing two people and crippling a child.

It is at this point the political, real estate, and moral dramas begin.

Visually, this film is amazing.  Filmed on location in Naples with a cast of thousands of real people (Steiger is the only known actor and the only American in the cast), each scene of the film is a work of art.  Dramatic set pieces make up the entire movie from the greatest building collapse ever filmed to political fireworks and high drama captured inside the actual city council room in Naples.  One scene where thousands of poor people are evicted from their homes and relocated by Nottolo who uses the collapse as an excuse to move them is heartbreaking.

But the real power of this movie is the fact there are no heroes but there are also no villains.  Each character is deeply flawed but extremely believable.  Nottolo is greedy, yes.  But he also wants to prevent a Communist Party takeover in the Naples City Council which would not only doom his business but the city itself.  His main antagonist is an ambitious Communist who wants to use the collapse tragedy to secure his own power base.  There are no clean hands in this film which makes it so realistic but also frightening to watch.

When two of the city's power brokers begin to distance themselves from Nottola and his schemes to escape liability for the collapse and continue on with his development plan, they meet to discuss strategy.

When one complains about the deaths of two innocent woman and a child who had both legs amputated in the collapse, the other reminds him to "not frame in the issue in moral terms but instead look at it from a political angle" as if the tragedy could be anything but a grand moral failure by everyone with power in the city.

If you want to see zoning boards, city councils, and real estate administration agencies all working Italian style, this is the film.  So realistic it's scary.

The ending will leave you breathless.  I cannot recommend this film more highly.

Hands Over The City is part of the famous Criterion Collection and can be seen on Hulu+.

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