“Shooting the Mafia” Film Review: Letizia Battaglia and Her Archive of Blood

by HelenHighly

"Shooting the Mafia" film poster

“Shooting the Mafia” film poster

At a time when archives are becoming a meaningful theme in documentary filmmaking – investigated and presented onscreen, almost as characters, rather than merely behind the scenes as research material, Shooting the Mafia is another excellent and compelling addition to the group. This Italian-language film by Kim Longinotto considers the nature of Letizia Battaglia’s photographic archive – as historical documentation as well as a captivating collection of photojournalism that has risen to the level of art. Plus, Shooting the Mafia falls into another increasingly popular doc category – the combo memoir/biopic. But this one provides an unusually candid and fearless look at the life of a truly exceptional woman.

Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia began a lifelong battle with the Mafia when she first dared to point her camera at a brutally slain victim. A woman whose passions led her to abandon traditional family life and become a photojournalist in the 1970s—the first female photographer to be employed by an Italian daily newspaper, Battaglia found herself on the front lines during one of the bloodiest chapters in Italy’s recent history. She bravely and artfully captured everyday Sicilian life—from weddings and funerals to the grisly murders of ordinary citizens, to tell the narrative of how the community she loved in her native Palermo was forced into silence and poverty by the Cosa Nostra. Weaving together Battaglia’s striking black-and-white photographs, rare archival footage, vintage Italian films (film lovers take note!), classic Italian music, original interviews and the now 84-year-old’s own memories, Shooting the Mafia paints a portrait of a remarkable woman whose determination and defiance helped expose the Mafia’s brutal crimes.

Mafia crime scene, photo by Letizia Battaglia

Mafia crime scene, photo by Letizia Battaglia

Helen Highly Brief

Mob Movie Meets Art Flick Meets Gruesome Travelogue – has a lot to attract and engage you, is worth seeing, but runs a little long and gets bogged down in the nitty gritty of Mafia names and trials.

Who Should See It?

— If you recently saw Scorsese’s The Irishman (or plan to see it soon on Netflix), or if you are generally a lover of mob movies, this film will provide some important factual perspective (that will burn the pop-culture romance-flavored butter right off your popcorn). Battaglia produced many of the iconic images that have come to represent Sicily and the Mafia throughout the world, and this is a rare and valuable look at the story behind the camera that took those photos.

Fear is a luxury we cannot afford. — Battaglia

— If you like films about the life of artists, this is about as good as they come, in that it is unusually honest and revealing. Letizia could have become a nun. She could have been a wealthy wife to an older man. She could have been a devoted and nurturing mother. She could have been a battered spouse. She could have been a mistress. She could have been cloistered in a psychiatric ward and labeled insane. She could have been a crime victim. (She could easily have been murdered.) She was most of those things and failed at or rejected others, but she refused to let any of them define her. Instead, she turned her life into art. And she went all in.

Palermo funeral photo, by Letizia Battaglia

Photo by Letizia Battaglia,”Shooting the Mafia”

— If you enjoy movies about photographers or like to look at photos, this film is for you. While you’re at it, you can also put Letter to the Editor on your to-watch list (coming to HBO this December), a documentary that displays the results of 40 years of one man compulsively clipping photos from the New York Times. Maria Garcia has called that archive “a quiet collection of screams,” which might be an even more apt description of Shooting the Mafia, and while the two films are in many ways entirely different, they do both share a lot of achingly beautiful pictures that come from the world of journalism. Interested in television journalism? Try Recorder: The Marion Stokes Story, which is reviewed here and in theaters now.

More shocking than the gruesome reality in these pictures is the intimacy in them – the closeness.

— And if, like me, there is a moth in your heart that is drawn to the flame of Sicily or Southern Italy and you start to feel flutters as soon as you see a few photos that capture the essence, you will want to watch this movie. The film points out that symptoms of embittered love will be familiar to anyone who has lived in Sicily for an extended period of time. Battaglia’s friend Sciascia says, “I hate and detest Sicily insofar as I love it, and insofar as it does not respond to the kind of love I would like to have for it.” He is speaking in reference to the Cosa Nostra’s dominance in Sicily, but I suggest that feeling of a knife in your heart (as they say) will resonate more broadly with anyone who has been captured by the diabolically rhapsodic spell cast by that part of the world – Sicily, Napoli and its environs, back then and even recently (where the culture that grew up around the Mafia will take more than a mere 30 years to fade). Whether Sicily or Napoli, there is a powerful sense of place, as devastating as it is alluring, inherently tragic and desperate in its ill-fated hopefulness, and even after you leave, you’ll never quite be free from it. (When the sun goes down, you remain at its window, as expressed in “O Sole Mio.”) If this makes sense to you, go see this movie.

To help validate that melancholic paragraph above, before proceeding with this article, I suggest you click below to hear Enrico Caruso sing “O Sole Mio,” the traditional Neapolitan song that is background for the beginning of Shooting the Mafia. There is no better way to set the mood. (Ironically, the title translates roughly to “You Are My Sunshine,” which one would guess would be a cheerful song, but not as sung by Caruso – a child of Napoli.)

Helen Highly Impressed

My first thought about Shooting the Mafia is that it was not what I expected. It’s a gorgeous movie; Longinotto creates a visually exciting narrative mixing these great old Italian films, archival news footage from the period, Letizia’s home videos and still photos. She distinctly portrays the look and feel of that time and place, which in itself is interesting to see. There is intrinsic beauty in those landscapes and streetscapes and the portraits of everyday people. Along with the music, it’s intensely evocative. And despite the subject matter, the film is not quite as grim as it may seem. There is plenty of life and color, and Battaglia’s interviews bring a sense of personal accomplishment and idealistic resolve.

But the strongest component is seeing so many of Battaglia’s photos, which yes are often gory and depict violence, but they express an exquisite anguish. We absolutely feel the pain of the photographer; the photos are genuinely caring – not exploitive. Battaglia opens herself up in an extraordinary way when capturing these images; they are personal to her, and the only comparison I can think of is Diane Arbus, when she was capturing “grotesque” images of people, but with a pronounced empathy that was startling in itself. More shocking than the gruesome reality in these pictures is the intimacy in them – the closeness.

Festa del giorno dei morti,. Palermo 1986

Festa del giorno dei morti, Palermo 1986, by Battaglia

Arbus was working to normalize marginalized people and Battaglia was doing the opposite – showing the horror of what had unfortunately become normalized, but they were using a similar approach. Both were getting as close as possible and looking straight at the subject; there is no flinching, no demurring and in contrast to the notion of cool objectivity, they employ what I will call a warm objectivity. Arbus shot mostly posed portraits and Battaglia shot candids but both look squarely at their subjects, and there is a sense of a deep searching. Arbus seemed to be asking “who?” and Battaglia is asking “why?”

Letizia Battaglia’s Mafia crime scene photo from "Shooting the Mafia"

Letizia Battaglia’s Mafia crime scene photo from “Shooting the Mafia”

These are photos from within a war, but Battaglia does not see them as frightening. She says in the film, “fear is a luxury we cannot afford.” She was cast into the middle of this bloody conflict and she chose not to run from it but to fight it by exposing it – showing what these so-called “men of honor” truly did and what the Corleonesi Mafia truly means. What one might initially see as horrifying depictions of death, Battaglia understands as history – her history and that of her people, tragic though it may be. Her work became much more than a job; it was her duty as a citizen, she believed.

For those who couldn’t pay, there was no resting place. — Battaglia

In fact, when prosecutors in Palermo indicted Giulio Andreotti (who had been prime minister of Italy seven times) for colluding with the Cosa Nostra and ordering the murder of a journalist, Battaglia allowed the police to search her archives, and they discovered two 1979 photographs of Andreotti with an important Mafioso, Nino Salvo, who he had denied knowing. These pictures were the only physical evidence of this powerful politician’s connections to the Sicilian Mafia. Her archive wasn’t just recording history, it was becoming part of it. (Andreotti was acquitted, nonetheless, but I would guess that at least cut down on the death threats to Battaglia.)

Letizia Battaglia and the Mafia

Letizia Battaglia was born in Palermo, Sicily in 1935. To escape her restrictive parents, she ran off at age 16 and eloped with an older man. It was an unhappy and physically abusive marriage, but she had three daughters; she felt trapped. She had an affair, and when her husband caught her with her lover, “he shot the man but didn’t kill him” (we are told, as if that makes it okay). Battaglia was afraid and depressed, “spiraled out of control,” ended up institutionalized in a psych ward and afterward was alone and lost. She took up journalism after her divorce in 1971, while raising her daughters. She picked up a camera when she found that she could better sell her articles if they were accompanied by images and slowly discovered a passion for photography. Then she saw her first murder.

Letizia Battaglia’s photo: Mafia killing crime scene

Letizia Battaglia wants us to understand: “I was saved by photography. I was a young, intelligent, desperate woman. My encounter with photography allowed me to express my thoughts, my rebellion, my social and political commitment.” 

In fact, we later learn that Letizia was 40 years old when she started taking pictures, so that’s not exactly “young,” as she says above (but speaking now from the age of 84, I guess 40 seems young, although honestly the timeline in this film seems a tad shaky). Any way you slice it, this woman has led a long, full life, and it is inspiring in that she re-invented herself and launched into this ambitious, dangerous career as a not-so-young woman. “Before finding the camera, I was not a person,” she says. Well, I kinda know what she means. Coincidentally, the time I spent in Southern Italy, I spent largely behind a camera, taking candid portraits of locals, and I found it gave me a strong identity; I liked being the unofficial “reporter” who was invited to events and occasions in order to document with my camera. It gave me a purpose and a place in the community. Of course, I didn’t get as deeply involved as Letizia did, and the only violence I witnessed was emotional.

Letizia Battaglia, photojournalist

Letizia Battaglia, photojournalist: “Suddenly I realized I had an archive of blood.”

Battaglia took close to 600,000 images as a photojournalist, sometimes shooting at the scene of four or five murders in a single day, pushing through the crowds of onlookers (and the male reporters to whom the police gave priority access), hastening to get the photo before the blood of the dead began to dry. It was unrelenting. Sometimes there would be as many as seven bodies at one hit. It seemed the Mafia was killing everyone and being held to no account. “It was good to be a little crazy,” Letizia says. “It gave me courage.” She pushed through the pain same as she did the crowds, and she continued to document the ferocious internal war of the Mafia and its assault on civil society. She refers to that time as “an apocalypse.”

Letizia Battaglia’s photo: Mafia killing crime scene

Letizia Battaglia’s photo: Mafia killing crime scene

Letizia says that the effect on daily life is what pained her the most. “I looked around and saw how the Mafia was causing so much poverty.” The Corleonesi controlled everything – not just the black market but the slaughterhouses, the meat market, the fish markets; there was no avoiding their reach. They even controlled funeral concessions; you had to go through the Mafia to get buried. “For those who couldn’t pay, there was no resting place.”

A still from "Shooting the Mafia" by Kim Longinotto,

A still from “Shooting the Mafia” by Kim Longinotto

Battaglia photographed the dead so often she felt like a roving morgue. “Suddenly,” she realized “I had an archive of blood.” She spent 18 years documenting the Corleonesi clan as they claimed the lives of thousands, including governors, policemen, entire mafia families and ultimately, two of Battaglia’s dearest friends – the anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. She says she could not bring herself to photograph those crime scenes, and after that she quit photojournalism.

Letizia Battaglia was not invincible; even she had her limit. She reveals to us in this film that she is full of human frailty and has led a troubled life, albeit a meaningful one. She makes no effort to glamorize or inflate it. Battaglia also readily confesses that “I did damage to my daughters. I couldn’t give enough.” Just as in her photos, there is no attempt to sugarcoat the truth, although she again admits her limits. During that section of her sit-down interview, as she chain-smokes, she says, “I could talk about it, but I don’t want to.”

Letizia Battaglia, photojournalist

Letizia Battaglia, photojournalist: “I could talk about it, but I don’t want to.”

This is a woman who has defied male authority, her society’s culture and the all-pervasive Mafia, her entire life, and she was outspoken at a time and in a place where that was unheard of, but it did come at a cost, and she knows it. Her vocation – her place behind the camera – brought her purpose and personal strength. It even led her into a career in politics where she served 12 years on the Palermo City Council. But Battaglia does have regrets and dismisses any portrayal of herself as heroic. “I realize now I’ve never been at peace,” she says. But in case you want to pass judgement on her (and her new, much-younger boyfriend), she declares, “People who disapprove of me can fuck off.”

Helen Respectfully Recommends Shooting the Mafia.

In theaters starting this weekend — 11/22.