By C.J. Hirschfield
There is no doubt that the story of octogenarian Italian photojournalist Letizia Battaglia is an interesting one. A talented artist/activist/elected official/ iconoclast who has experienced spousal abuse, sexual discrimination, and many long affairs with much younger men, she has for decades documented the atrocities of the Mafia in her home town of Palermo, Sicily.
And certainly the story of what life is like in the organized crime syndicate’s home base and the plight of the civilians caught in their bloody crossfire is worth telling, especially from the point of view of someone (Letizia) who has survived and chronicled the mayhem. The Cosa Nostra’s nearly absolute control and use of violence is shocking, and horrific. And Letizia has the photos—mainly of bloody dead bodies and mourning families left behind—to prove it.Unfortunately, the new documentary SHOOTING THE MAFIA doesn’t succeed in artfully blending the two stories into a compelling narrative, and the result is a (pun intended) scattershot study of often disconnected pieces that diffuse any intended message of real import that comes from having illuminated a complicated subject.
Director Kim Longinotto, a multi-award-winning documentary filmmaker, is well known for making films about female outsiders and rebels. Her most recent films have shown women standing up to rapists in India, an Indian Muslim woman who smuggled poetry out to the world while locked up by her family, and a look at the life and work of an ex-prostitute who rescues Chicago girls from the street.
She has chosen complicated subjects here. Letizia has a beautifully weathered face, pink hair and is an unapologetic chain-smoker who says of the Mafia “I want to destroy them,” even in the face of death threats, smashed cameras and menacing anonymous letters. Her courage is undeniable, as is her tenacity. Her young life is extremely troubled, and helps explain the tough person she became.
But the time the film devotes to her numerous ex-lovers is confusing—yes, most are much younger, but none has a particularly interesting story to tell. And when Letizia is asked to explain the damage she admits she inflicted on her daughters, she refuses to discuss.Confusing too are many of the film clips that are used throughout the film. Volcanos erupting, bloody tuna thrashing underwater, scenes from mid-century Italian melodramas—these don’t serve the purpose of helping tell a compelling story.
For a film about the Mafia, this documentary offers only superficial information on the group—that they control everything while people in all professions and walks of life just look the other way, or are paid off. And they blow up judges who are brave enough to try to bring them to justice. What are the underlying factors that have allowed them to so successfully dominate Palermo with impunity for decades? We don’t know how the Mafia gained its foothold, or how they continue to rule.In the last few minutes of the film, and after yet another good guy is blown up by the Mafia, the scene abruptly switches to the saucy Letizia explaining her latest relationship with a man 38 years her junior. He is a photographer specializing in transgender and transsexual subjects. We see his photos. The film ends.
“It was good to be a bit crazy,” says Letizia, and I wish this brave person well. But ultimately SHOOTING THE MAFIA misses its mark.
SHOOTING THE MAFIA is a Cohen Media Group release, runs 97 minutes, in English and Italian with English subtitles, and is playing at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco and across the U.S. in December.
Interviews with director Kim Longinotto and photographer Letizia Battaglia below.
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry and produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and has written a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years. She has also written features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield is former president and board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District and is on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free monthly movies in Oakland and Piedmont. C.J. says, “Documentaries make me a better person.”
Read about the films of director Kim Longinotto distributed by Women Make Movies.
Titles available from Amazon.
“Hollywood Mafia films are skillful propaganda”: Kim Longinotto on why her new film breaks that mould.
Where to begin with Kim Longinotto- A British Film Institute Primer. Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…
Sundance 2019 Women Directors: Meet Kim Longinotto from Women and Hollywood.
“I know for a fact that a few voices weren’t too happy that I basically tell two stories at the same time,” says Longinotto. The director talks about going to Italy’s very south to tell a rather different story of liberation to Freunde Von Freunden.
Letizia Battaglia at the International Center of Photography.
Letizia Battaglia: Meet the woman who exposed the mafia in Harper’s Bazaar.
Archive of blood: how photographer Letizia Battaglia shot the mafia and lived in The Guardian
There are many books by and about Battaglia that can be ordered through your local independent bookstore or from Indiebound, Amazon or a bookseller of your choice.
A gallery of her photos on ARTPIL
Alternate teaser posters by Brandon Schaefer (@seekandspeak) for SHOOTING THE MAFIA.