Shooting the Mafia is unflinching in its depiction of the cruelty and baseness of the Cosa Nostra, showing their involvement in Sicily through the perspective of one woman brave enough to document their brutality. A combination of the personal and the political, it is a meticulously wrought character portrait of a woman sick of playing by men’s rules.
When Letizia Battaglia was a little girl, a random man masturbated in front of her in the middle of the street. She’s lived with this image her whole life, the kind of trauma that’s impossible to shake off. For her, the mafia is merely an extension of this same patriarchy — men using their power and influence to hurt others. To defeat such a corrupt system is to overhaul it from its very fabric, including the way both men and women are raised.
Letizia’s life is ruled by trauma, both in her personal life and in seeing first-hand the horrors of mafia activity; her childhood feels ripped right out of an Elena Ferrante novel. Her father didn’t let her play outside for fear that a man might take her away, and she married young to the first person who asked her. On their wedding night, his aunt checked the bed sheets to make sure she was a virgin. She had a brief spell in a sanatorium in Switzerland. She took many lovers. And by the time she turned thirty, she had had enough, leaving her first husband in pursuit of personal fulfillment. She found a job at L’Ora, becoming the first female photographer in the country. As civil war raged throughout Palermo in the 70s and 80s, she took hundreds of photos of dead bodies, creating — in her words — “an archive of blood.”
By turning her camera on the mafia themselves, as well as the havoc that they wreak, Battaglia flips the script, using mere documentation as a tool of power in itself. They are stark, bold photos, mostly shot in high-contrast black-and-white. The images are hard to look at; bodies lay prostrate on the pavement, leaving a trail of blood. Heads are ripped open, limbs are torn apart. Even women and children are not free from the sheer evil of the Casa Nostra. The myth of the cool gangster is wholly deconstructed.
Once mafioso go into hiding, the allure of the gangster lifestyle is completely lost. Often living alone and deprived of much contact with the outside world, they pass messages to their subordinates through scribblings on paper — an old, yet efficient method of implementing orders without being caught. Still, the old Sicilian phrase that “power is better than fucking” remains true here; the ability to strike fear into others holds an immensely seductive allure to this day. While we are treated to feel-good footage of godfathers being pushed into police cars and sentenced to life imprisonment, there is a sense here that corruption and fear still lingers. Don’t watch this on an empty stomach.
Battaglia may have defied the odds, but this is hardly a feel-good movie. The life she has led and the things that she has seen have left wounds that no time can heal. Kim Longinotto doesn’t pry any further, leaving much of her life uncovered, yet Battaglia is confident that Sicily will become Mafia-free. As long as women such as her still exist, there is hope.