Fantasia 2019: SHOOTING THE MAFIA Takes a Trip to the Horrors of Sicily’s Underworld

The journey of a photographer and the country she captured on film

Fantasia Fest runs from July 11th to August 1st, 2019. For more information, click here.

Having recently watched The Last Resort, the Kino Lorber documentary which told the story of the late photographer Andy Sweet and the mesmerizing chronicle he made of the elderly Jewish community in 1970s Miami Beach through his work, I was totally in the mood for documentaries about those individuals who used the camera to bring to light a world so rich in culture. It’s for this reason specifically that I found myself intrigued when I came across Shooting the Mafia, Kim Longinotto’s documentary on legendary Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia, who made a name for herself as a photojournalist documenting the effects of the mafia on the people and city of Palermo. To me, the title and logline description seemed to promise another informative take on a world I only knew from the outside, illustrated through a series of beautiful and wondrous photographs. While Longinotto’s film did not disappoint, delivering on those levels, it turned into something far more meaningful and human than I was intending.

Shooting the Mafia could well be looked at as an examination of post-war Sicily as it journeys through each decade of Letizia’s life in the country. Yet this isn’t a conventional look at a mystical forgein land, but rather one governed by the strong arm of the dangerous underworld and the people who learned to live in it with a fear which permeated so strongly, it became part of the culture. The doc examines the various powers held by the mafia and how far-reaching such a hold extended, from shady men on the street, to the politico. The film shows ordinary people going about their business in their neighborhoods until a swift warning in the form of gunshots and a dying man signals men to flee and women to scoop up their children indoors. Footage of actual hits taking place and strategically timed explosions of cars carrying high-ranking officials are all unflinchingly shown, giving a true sense of one of the most harrowing worlds to ever exist in. By the time Shooting the Mafia reaches the 90s in its timeline, we see a Sicily in an uprising; a society whose people are tired of living under a dark cloud and are ready to fight back as mob bosses are brought to justice and a country tries its hardest to stop holding its breath.

In the midst of this intense look at a country’s tumultuous past is a portrait of the fascinating woman documenting it all. While one gets the sense that Letizia doesn’t consider herself as such, there’s no question regarding her status as a trailblazer, managing to succeed in a highly male-dominated industry. The eternally-vibrant Letizia recalls her entrance into her profession by being able to land a job at the local paper during the dog days of summer when staffing was low, as well as how her early work lacked the kind of soul and finesse she would later become known for. Yet watching her talk about the sensation she felt when behind the lens of a camera is every inch inspiring. Shielded by her domineering father as a young girl, Letizia speaks about a definite sense of freedom and power the camera was able to give her. She speaks candidly about being a photographer whose bulk of work consisted of mob hits and grieving victims’ families. The still-active photographer comments on a sense of embarrassment at having to snap shots at wailing mothers and how she was always afraid a hit would someday be taken out on her because of the work she did. Letizia is just as open about the effect her work had on her private life. Former lovers are interviewed with Letizia explaining the ups and downs of each romance. Additionally, Letizia comments on the regrets she has about her relationship with her children and how certain experiences during her time as a photographer continue to haunt her to this day.

Shooting the Mafia suffers only slightly in its struggle to maintain a well-balanced look at both subjects. The reason for this isn’t due to any fault of the filmmakers, but rather the fact that both the history of Mafia-ridden Palermo and Letizia herself are such interesting and worthwhile subjects in their own rights. The two inevitably compliment each other too well in documentary terms, that leaving one out would be a mistake. After finishing Shooting the Mafia, I was reminded about all those times on the classic sitcom, The Golden Girls, when the character of Sophia (Estelle Getty) would reminisce about her life in Sicily, oftentimes weaving tall tales both wild and hilarious which would occasionally incorporate the mafia. While the audience watching no doubt knew most of what the character said was for laughs, this documentary successfully manages to strip away the stereotypes and romanticism of the mafia presented to the general public, exposing the dark reality many people were forced to call part of daily life. It’s an accomplishment made all the more diverting when seen through the eyes of a woman who bravely captured the state and spirit of her homeland, becoming a force of nature in the process who continues to thrive to this day.

Previous post Arrow Heads Roundup — KEOMA, MÉLO, TERRAFORMARS, SCARED STIFF, KHRUSTALYOV MY CAR, and more
Next post Sit Back and Get Smacked by MASTER Z: THE IP MAN LEGACY