Blu-ray Review: Shooting the Mafia (2019)

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"The mafia kills. So does silence." The words appear on a sign at an anti-mafia rally early on Kim Longinotto's eye-opening documentary Shooting the Mafia and also serve as a great tribute to the photographer at the center of the filmmaker's biographical portrait, Letizia Battaglia, who — as the translation of her surname suggests — battles the mob by refusing to adhere to the code of silence that has kept them in power in Sicily for so long.

If a person goes missing in Corleone, Sicily, Longinotto's film informs us, no one says a word for fear of retribution. Ruling not only the meat, fish, fruit, and vegetable markets but also the funeral industry, we learn that if a person can no longer pay the mob to keep their loved one buried, they'll simply dig up their bones from the cemetery to make room for a family that can line their pockets.

Turning her lens on the economic devastation and political corruption caused by La Cosa Nostra, as the country's first female photographer hired by a daily newspaper in the form of the liberal L'Ora in the 1970s, Battaglia used her camera to prove that when it comes to the mob, fear is a luxury that Sicily can simply not afford.

An ambitious, sprawling but too often vague and disjointed chronicle of both Battaglia and the mafia's impact on Sicily over the past fifty years, it's a nonetheless fascinating introduction to a courageous iconoclast who picked up a camera at forty and was changed by it to the point that — looking back — feels she wasn't a real person before she had it in her hands.

Sharing her recollections of growing up in a world dominated by men, you feel her frustration when she discusses being locked up by her father as a beautiful teen to the point that she couldn't go out onto the balcony in case she would tempt male passersby. Later contrasting this with a spicier memory of meeting one of her many lovers on the balcony after her mercurial husband had fallen asleep, you get the sense of how being controlled and yearning to break free from men who wanted to silence her prepared her for the next forty years of her life.

Missing huge gaps of biographical information and bafflingly light on specific details including the years certain events happened, although she uses moving clips from classic Italian films to help bring Battaglia's memories to life, Longinotto struggles to tell a cohesive story throughout and seems uncertain how much of Battaglia's life to go into as opposed to her work.

Opening on Battaglia's stark, artful, hellish portraits of the aftermath of brutal mob slayings and simple yet stunning images of Corleone residents striving to live their lives under mafia rule, the film presents us with half intriguing, half murky information about our subject as well as Sicily. At its most gripping in the second half of the film when it charts how judges Falcone and Borsellino put their lives on the line to bring the mafia to justice in a historic trial with hundreds of defendants, Shooting the Mafia works extraordinarily well when it zeroes in on one specific timeline.

Unsure what story she truly wants to tell, when Longinotto focuses on the downfall of two of Corleone's most notorious mob bosses, we're left with the startling revelation that this piece of the puzzle is actually far more interesting than anything that had come before it. An intriguing if narratively unsuccessful documentary about a heroic photographer who breaks Sicily's years of silence to shout at the mafia as loud as she can with each click of her camera, I only wish the film had been as clear cut, laser focused, and determined as the woman at its center who refuses to be contained.

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