Steiger plays Edoardo Nottola, a developer who has a seat on the Naples city council. He's got a big apartment complex project in the works and is knocking down one neighborhood to build another, at profit to himself. The film opens with a spectacular sequence in which Nottola's pile-drivers accidentally bring down a rickety building. This is what I call Italian neorealism on steroids. If Rosi wants to show a building falling down, he knocks down a real, full-sized building.
The collapse, which results in fatalities and injuries, becomes a political scandal, with critics assuming that Nottola is cutting corners around Neapolitian building codes. But as a politician, he has a powerful political party behind him. As a landlord and employer, he has the power to deliver votes and make his party obliged to him. In return, the party defends him, accusing critics of trying to politicize the issue.
Nevertheless, an investigation takes place, despite partisan obstruction, even while Nottola's colleagues consider throwing him under the bus. In the end, however, the developer prevails, arguing on his own behalf that his political enemies are only going after him for propaganda purposes, without any real regard for the people whose hovels he promises to replace with modern apartments.
Nottola's story illustrates a point I've made here about the way partisanship confers immunity on politicians and licenses them to transgress as far as they dare. You can see this immunity principle at work in debates over whether to investigate members of the Bush administration for their roles in the torture of alleged terrorists. Against the idea of prosecution it is argued that bringing alleged criminals to account would be "criminalizing politics." When people who happen to belong to one party accuse others who happen to be in another party of criminal conduct, partisanship encourages us to presume that the accusers are acting chiefly from partisan motives, not from sincere concern for justice. At least that's how partisans usually react when someone from their own party is accused.
The interesting, eye-opening aspect of Hands Over the City is that this familiar scenario plays out in a setting with a genuine multiparty system. Naples in 1963 was not a "Bipolarchy." Though Rosi (or the writer of the English subtitles) is coy about identifying the parties by name, there's clearly a "left," a "right" and a "center." Before watching the film, I had assumed that a bipolarchic system like the U.S. was the most likely breeding ground for partisan immunity. Hands Over the City suggests that any party system, with any number of parties, can foster similar corruption. All it takes is partisanship so pervasive that people no longer believe in the existence of an objective space free from partisan interest, where there might be right or wrong, crime or justice, independent of how parties might suffer or benefit from events. It helps, too, to have cynical, self-interested characters like Nottola who latch onto the political system and leech off of it, fully aware of the immunity it can confer on him.
The moral I take from Hands Over the City is that wherever there are parties, there is the danger of a culture of partisan immunity prevailing, and that the danger doesn't seem to decrease as you add more parties. The only real solution may be to achieve a genuine no-party (as opposed to one-party) system in which no wrongdoer can claim sanctuary in the privileged position of an official opposition, and no one will protect a wrongdoer from justice because he's part of one's particular team. You might argue that we don't need to dismantle parties, we only need to elect people of sound moral character. But it was James "Father of the Constitution" Madison who said that if men were angels we could do without a lot of safeguards we end up finding quite necessary. It may be that even more safeguards are needed than Madison anticipated.