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Shooting the Mafia
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by Jay Seaver

"Interesting despite a couple of gaps."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: This is an intriguing but odd documentary, in that it seems like it could be more focused or detailed or illustrative, but instead the filmmakers just let their subject take them where she would, and if that wasn't where they expected, so be it. It helps to have the sort of subject who is willing to take you places in that case, although sometimes that means being ready for them to just not be interested in certain parts of the story.

Which isn't necessarily the case with Letizia Battaglia of Palermo, born in 1935, sent to a convent school by a controlling father, married at 16, and had three daughters, with the Mafia a part of the background noise, as was typical on the island of Sicily. She was 40 years old before walking into <I>L'Ora</I> to look for a job and winding up a photographer. She quickly became known for having a great eye, and also for not flinching in how she depicted organized crime (she photographed her first murder scene on her third day on the job). She would eventually enter politics with the Green Party, and her work would be seen as a crucial part of an unprecedented crackdown.

Some documentaries have a subject and some have a star, and there's no doubt that Battaglia fits in the latter category, she's famous, well-respected, and colorful and knows it. She's able to casually take charge of the film and bring out the respect and deference of those who talk about her, seldom seeming like she's bragging or ostentatiously self-deprecating. She doesn't seem to be bullying director Kim Longinotto or dictating what can or cannot be included in an obvious way; she just sits squarely at the center, telling stories she knows so well that they are somewhat hypnotic, so that the rest of the film has to work a bit harder.

As a result, the fact that Battalagia became a photographer and that she saw people connect to these pictures is the story, rather than the how of it. The film never seems to have as much of Letizia Battalagia's photography as it seems like it really "should", compared to others along similar lines. Longinotto seldom stops to comment on Battalagia's work as art and/or journalism, or call attention to a certain image being hers and what it represents as such. There are also noticeable gaps likely based upon what she was interested in talking about, and that means they have to work around it. For instance, there's not much about her time in politics, or when she wasn't active in either politics or photography, so she takes a step back during the big Mafia trials, letting those major events play out without her. It sometimes makes her feel like a convenient way to look at Sicily in general, rather than her, but it's always an odd thing when the main character is missing from the climax.

That doesn't leave a gap, because she is interesting enough to carry through, even if she never fits the confines of a conventional documentary easily. The people in her life talk about her with great affection, including a sometimes eyebrow-raising parade of younger photographers she took as lovers. Because she didn't pick up a camera until the age of 40, there's relatively little documentation of her early life, leading the filmmakers to fill in the gaps with film clips, which helps elevate her to a larger-than-life figure, confusing the heightened reality of the movie's techniques with the often dramatic life she would lead. It's intriguing and informative, but also shows you can't avoid myth-making.

Which is fine; a movie like this is about telling a big story lived by a big personality. What's left out, or given surprisingly little time, is unusual, but that doesn't make the rest any less interesting.

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originally posted: 04/28/20 11:24:10
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2019 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Kim Longinotto

Written by

  Letizia Battaglia

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