“Shooting the Mafia”: The female photographer documenting the height of Sicily’s Mafia wars

Shooting the Mafia, directed by Kim Longinotto, centers on photographer Letizia Battaglia and her work documenting the perils caused by the Italian Mafia. (BV 4.0/5.0)

Review by Junior Associate Beatrice Viri

Veteran filmmaker Kim Longinotto’s newest documentary is a thoughtful and evocative portrait of an unconventional hero. Letizia Battaglia is a woman of many layers, an artist, an activist, a lover, a fighter, who maintains a spunky pink bob and willful spirit despite her years and the cruelty she’s seen. 

Born to a controlling father, Battaglia lived a sheltered early life life. Unhappy with her circumstances, she jumped at the opportunity to run away at age 16 and married the first man who’d asked. But marriage was not an escape, and Battaglia felt chained as a housewife, forbidden to go to school and tasked with raising three daughters. It wasn’t until Battaglia’s 40s that she stepped into her fruitful career, when she divorced her husband and became a photojournalist. 

A tumultuous life incited a complicated love life, and Battaglia found herself in the hands of younger men like long-time lover Franco Zecchin. But cynically, Battaglia bemoans that ““love is a lie. Love is a swindle. If love is true, it would never end”; relationships cannot compare to her life’s work and love, her “archive of blood”. Initially, Battaglia did not want to photograph the mafia, but witnessed her first murder three days into the job. She was one of the first Italian female photojournalists to document such violence, a woman “in the world of men”  with a lifetime’s worth of trauma in her camera.

Battaglia’s photographs are nothing short of spectacular, though graphic and grueling. Shooting the Mafia is not for the faint of heart; corpses are shown as if an everyday occurrence — which, in the height of the Mafia Wars, may have well been. The Italian Mafia may seem glamorous on the big screen, but in truth took advantage of poverty and treated bodies as disposable. Even children were not spared, Battaglia rues, and she and the citizens of Palermo lived in fear for their lives everyday. 

In Shooting the Mafia, Longinotto also includes clips from old Italian films. Though many of them seem out of place especially next to Battaglia’s work, one towards the end struck out to me in particular. In this scene, dead sharks piled up covered in pools of blood, serving as a metaphor for all the lives taken during those violent times. 

Truthfully, I wish that Shooting the Mafia had shown more with Battaglia and her daughters, rather than her romances. Her romantic relationships were significant in her life, though also come with sadness as Battaglia regards love with cynicism, but I wonder if her career influenced her daughters or caused them harm. Her daughters are barely mentioned, and it implies a rocky relationship —  I can understand why they were omitted, but still wonder how they regard their mother’s impactful legacy.

Though powerful and thoughtful with its material, Shooting the Mafia only paints half of a picture and leaves many details up in the air. We do get insight into Battaglia’s life, but have to tape many pieces together ourselves, and are fed only general events of what had happened during Sicily’s Mafia Wars. As outsiders who know nothing of the Mafia’s history on Italy, understanding the context could get a bit confusing. But is cohesiveness and story even important in the grand scheme of the film, when the material is so rich, impactful and important? That’s a question for debate. 

© Beatrice Viri 12/02/2019

Photos: Mafia Photojournalist Letizia Battaglia in the documentary Shooting the Mafia, a chilling photograph by Letizia Battaglia from her “bloody archive” documenting the Mafia epidemic

Photo Credits: Letizia Battaglia, Kim Longinotto

Does Shooting the Mafia pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

It does, albeit by a slim margin; Battaglia and her assistant speak about her work.

Tags: FF2 Media

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