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A 1970s Weegee with a social conscience, photojournalist Letizia Battaglia spent 20 years working in Palermo, Sicily, at a time when Mafia hits were epidemic there. With a sharp eye for composition, she captured brutally realistic images. At times she focused on everyday working class life: an impoverished mother and children in a crumbling apartment. But her trademark subjects are criminals and their victims. A startling photograph shows the aftermath of a triple murder, one body draped across an armchair, another on the floor, a third crumpled on a sofa. Both are included in Shooting the Mafia, a chronicle of her life and work that is interesting enough in substance, but partial and so erratic as a film that it is not likely to bring Battaglia’s work the attention it deserves.
The film was directed by Kim Longinotto, who won the World Cinema Directing Award for documentary at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival for Dreamcatcher, about rescuing Chicago girls from prostitution. Her approach here is to disappear while Battaglia, now 83, tells her life story, supplemented by archival material and her own photographs. Roughly two-thirds of the film feels like a self-indulgent memoir, with all the selective memory autobiographies often bring. The final third veers into a related area, a Mafia trial in 1986 and the subsequent murder of its judge, a man Battaglia knew but a story she was not a part of.
Talking to unseen interviewers, constantly smoking, Battaglia is forceful yet wary, an attention-getting presence with bright red hair that is sometimes pink. In the film’s weak early sections, she recalls marrying at 16 to the first man who asked, and becoming a mother. She then became what she calls “a restless woman,” with many lovers, a period the film depicts with clips from Italian movies of the Dolce Vita era. Silvana Magnano makes several appearances. The background songs include “O Sole Mio” and “Volare,” adding a tone of kitsch to a decidedly unkitschy story.
The film becomes less laughable after that. Divorced in 1971, Battaglia fell in love with journalism and began taking photographs for the liberal newspaper L’Ora. She went after the Mafia relentlessly because, she says, their corruption caused poverty for ordinary people.
Her private life was never entirely separate from her work. The documentary brings in two men who had long relationships with Battaglia, both of them also photographers who worked alongside her. As these sentimental reunions play out on camera in turn, the couples talking about the past and looking over their photos, Battaglia seems happy to revel in the details of her affairs. She is less willing to talk about her family. “A restless woman like me is bound to damage her daughters,” she says. “I could talk about it but I don’t want to,” which is direct and fair enough.
But while devoting so much time to Battaglia’s life, both revealing and concealing, the film skimps on attention to her work and the aesthetic behind it. The few insights we get into those subjects are far more intriguing than the otherwise hero-worshipping tone and personal memories. Her photos are beautifully shot, but she says that she doesn’t want to glamorize violence, a comment dropped almost in passing.
“I look at my photographs, it’s just blood, blood, blood,” she says of the time in the mid-’80s when she turned from journalism to politics and became a Green Party city councilor. That is as thoughtful as she gets.
The film morphs into a bit of potted history when Battaglia recalls a famous Mafia trial in Sicily, presided over by the anti-corruption judge Giovanni Falcone, a political acquaintance rather than a friend of hers. In 1992 he was killed by a car explosion, and months later his colleague, Paolo Borsellino, was also murdered. Battaglia raced to each scene when she heard about the deaths, but was unable to make herself take any photographs because it was too painful. She says she regrets that now, although she never once approaches the thorny, endless questions about a photojournalist’s choices, what is exploitative and what is responsible.
It is strange to say that a film as blood-soaked as this is easy and pleasant enough to watch, but that is the off-kilter tone it creates. Mildly informative but superficial, Shooting the Mafia is much less dynamic than its title.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Production company: Lunar Pictures
Cast: Letizia Battaglia, Maria Chiara Di Trepani, Santi Caleca, Eduardo Rebulla, Franco Zecchin, Roberto Timperi
Director: Kim Longinotto
Producer: Niamh Fagan
Editor: Ollie Huddleston
Music: Ray Harman
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