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A comprehensive portrait of Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia, director Kim Longinotto’s Shooting the Mafia offers more than just biography. Beyond the details of a life, Longinotto (Pink Saris) indicts a socio-political system that has forced endemic poverty and corruption on the people of Palermo and environs. The mafia – or Cosa Nostra, as they are also known – control the region through violence and bribery, and those who resist usually find themselves blown up, garroted or shot. Not so Battaglia, who at 84 is still going strong in her quest to document, with her little still camera, the evil at Sicily’s core. Somehow, she has escaped retribution, building a legacy of brilliant photojournalism, most of it focused on mafia activity. Through brutal to behold – there are corpses and body parts to spare in her work – her photos make for essential viewing. Thanks to Longinotto, Battaglia now has an even larger audience.
The director also has access to an impressive array of archival video and film footage, as well, making Shooting the Mafia an in-depth history of 20th-century Sicily. She also folds in clips from period Italian films, blending reality and fiction in a way that emphasizes how the savagery of mafia activity takes on an almost cinematic quality, despite its horror. After all, starting with Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece The Godfather, organized crime has been imbued with a tragic, romantic aura that softens some of its viciousness. Not so here, where the bloody bodies of Battaglia’s snapshots throw the truth of the Cosa Nostra into sharp, stark relief.
Beyond her work, Battaglia has led quite an eventful life, herself. When, as a child, she had an encounter with a flasher, her father subsequently limited her freedom of movement (in the name of protection). Sent to be schooled by nuns, she soon became an atheist. She married at 16 to escape her domestic imprisonment, only to find that her 8-years-older husband was no less controlling than her father. The marriage turned sour (and violent), and after birthing two daughters and spending two years at a Swiss sanitarium treating her subsequent illness and depression, Battaglia finally mustered the energy to break free. Beautiful and appealing to many men, she began having affairs with much younger partners, first during her marriage and then afterwards, up to and including to this day: her current partner is 38 years her junior. She took many great risks throughout her 8½ decades, experience deep unpleasantness, but also seized pleasures when they came her way. Now that’s called living.
She served in the Italian parliament as a member of the Green Party, too. Indeed, Battaglia’s existence serves as a powerful rebuke to the misogyny that defines mafia (and Sicilian) culture. Perhaps she has survived so long because the mobsters just didn’t take her seriously as a threat. So be it. Best make the most of their contempt. She did, and now has the last laugh, since many of them are now in jail and she is as vital as ever. Facing danger has paid positive dividends in this case, and Shooting the Mafia is a more than worthy testament to her efforts. Ciao, Letizia!
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
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