Italian director Francesco Rosi made one of the best first impressions on me when I saw his film Salvatore Giuliano (reviewed on this site here), a propulsive docu-drama about a rebel who was hailed as a hero when he fought for the independence of Sicily and later became controversially implicated in the massacre of a gathering of communists. Hands over the City, while not as visceral, was still a strong indictment of the collusion of corruption between big business and government. Certain aspects of the plot seemed to have inspired parts of the classic Indian satire Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. On the other hand, Rosi's later output tended to more poetic / nostalgic features like Three Brothers (reviewed here) and Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
While it does have some criticism of a government that is fascist or does not bother to understand the lives of its less-privileged citizens, 1979's Christ Stopped at Eboli (CSAE, based on an autobiographical book by painter, intellectual and political prisoner Carlo Levi) falls more in the latter camp, being the sentimental study of an older, agrarian culture with its own rhythms and social hierarchies. Although CSAE was also shown as a significantly truncated 150-min film, it was originally a 4-Episode mini-series for the state-owned Radiotélévisione Italiana, totaling about 220 min. Gian Maria Volonté, famous abroad for his violent roles in the Dollars films and other spaghetti westerns, plays the soft-spoken Levi who at the beginning is seen coming into the remote part of southern Italy where he has been exiled by Rome.
Levi is treated with courtesy by the administration (led by the bureaucratic Mayor), but his movements and activities are restricted. A long ago degree in medicine comes to purpose when the villagers insist on consulting him, despite his protests of being inexperienced, because he is more intelligent and sincere than the local quacks. This is not a series packed with twists and turns and events of massive upheaval. The bulk of CSAE is about Levi being exposed to the local life and beliefs, and evolving his philosophy of how government and reform can actually help the people.
I haven't read the source novel but Rosi's film shows a strong strain of nostalgia for the old, "pure" ways. His camera lovingly caresses the rocky hills and the rough village roads. The people of this forgotten town may be poor and simple-minded, but they are good at heart and they respond to Levi's kindness, agitating for him to officially practice medicine in the village, even under threat of being attacked by the police. The moral of the film is that if we want to benefit someone we need to first examine and understand their way of life, and support it in the best way possible rather than impose a supposedly more progressive lifestyle and thinking upon them.