Archive for November, 2019

Shooting the Mafia

November 10, 2019

Shooting the Mafia, Film by Kim Longinotto

A Documentary Misses its Mark but Finds Another

Ida Post Mafia

The Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia (b. 1935) – glamorous, iconoclastic, talented – should make for a story that tells itself. She devoted her life to staring down the Sicilian Mafia, defying a deeply conservative society to do so. With her shocks of blond hair, grand quips such as “Success is a terrible thing, I prefer love,” a parade of younger lovers (the gap seems to grow with her age – at the time of the film she is involved with a photographer 38 years her junior), and commitment to the truth at great personal risk, this is a woman who has lived passionately, fearlessly, as close to the surface as life allows.


Battaglia escaped an expected early marriage and children to become Italy’s first female photographer for a daily newspaper. She and her partner, Franco Zecchin (who like another lover is awkwardly brought into the movie for a sort of reunion) would produce some of the most iconic photos documenting the violence of the Sicilian Mafia. Until 1990, as photography director of L’Ora, Battaglia was personally present (or if not, would send a substitute) at every major crime scene. According to the film, some of those years would see more than 1000 murders at the hands of the Mafia. Especially as a woman challenging these men, and a body of work that is stark, tragic and often stunning, this film should have an excess of searing images, emotion, and appreciation for her work and life. That it doesn’t is not completely hard to understand – Battaglia is physically present as an interview subject but is not especially forthcoming. Though for some reason, the filmmaker has not shared nearly enough of Battaglia’s images as she could have. One or the other (and certainly both together) could have provided a deeper sense of this trailblazer, including the sacrifices she had to make to forge a path in an especially hostile environment.


While the movie does not give us a three-dimensional Letizia, it does something else. Perhaps out of necessity. It provides unsentimental portraits of both war photography and the Mafia. That the name Corleone frequently arises is a helpful reminder of the many ways the Mafia has been portrayed over the years. It is true that many have created their versions of correctives to any reverie for organized crime. “Gomorrah” is unflinching, and “The Sopranos” showed the rot at the core. And certainly “Goodfellas” exposed more venality than somber allegiance to Omertà. And yet, the scale of the cost, and the depth of the tragedy to an entire society still, it turns out, merit better representation.  Perhaps as long as the story and camera train their eye on the criminals, it’s near impossible to avoid connection to even the most depraved anti-hero. “Narcos,” both the Pablo Escobar and Mexico seasons, are good reminders of that. In “Shooting the Mafia,” the individual Mafia dons and henchmen are always secondary to their crimes. And the beautiful and rugged Sicilian landscape is barely perceptible as such – we mostly see poverty, bloodshed, grief and fear. As compared to when Apollonia dies in “The Godfather,” and we are mostly left remembering her stunning beauty and what seemed like a disappointing end to Michael’s gap year in Sicily (I say this is as an absurdly huge fan of both GI & GII).

Ida Post Mafia Apollonia

In “Shooting The Mafia,” we do watch those who confront their fears to try and bring some kind of justice. This is ostensibly what the film is supposed to be about – Battaglia’s work in the face of this immense personal danger. We see when she decides to exhibit their photos in the Corleone town square. The photo display is a direct indictment of the local crime boss Liggio – with images of both him and the bloody trail he has left behind. At first, we see crowds approaching the images. But then, as they realize what they are looking at, they recede until disappearing completely, leaving an empty square. It would have been great to see longer takes and footage from this moment, of the radical boldness of the exhibit and the fear that sent a whole town running from it.


However, this detachment ultimately provides an important unsentimental portrait of the Mafia’s violence. Footage of the trial that ended with the conviction of more than 300 men remains focused on the cold-blooded nature of this business. It does not elevate any individual personalities. And the tragic but unsurprising assassination of the prosecutor, and then of his deputy, continue this portrait of historic and systemic violence. Crowds of protesters and grieving widows in churches,  helps us zoom in and out of this tragedy.


In documenting Battaglia as a crime photographer, the film also undermines any prurient sensationalism. That is difficult to do. Thinking of someone like Weegee while looking at these images feels downright perverse.


And there is just enough Letizia for us to get a sense of this woman’s outsized mark. Maybe another film – or preferably, a retrospective (she does not seem inclined to offer more in person; her images are our best bet)– can bring us closer to her.