Love and Death in Palermo: 'Shooting the Mafia' Captures a Compelling Artist

Kim Longinotto's portrait of Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia celebrates the powers of love and art in contrast to the intimidating force of the Cosa Nostra.

Lunar Pictures

Nonfics is now a newsletter! Please support documentary criticism by subscribing here:

To come away from a documentary wanting more can be a good thing. It doesn’t necessarily mean an insufficiency on the part of the filmmaker, especially if the subject is an artist and the lack is in the amount of their work presented on screen. Shooting the Mafia had me initially wishing there were more of Letizia Battaglia‘s photographs on display. The pictures that are showcased are more captivating than anything else in the doc, which is understandable. It’s not often that a film about an important artist is better than that artist’s own output. That’d be like having a gallery where the doorway is more appealing than the pieces inside.

Then again, Shooting the Mafia is not just a wall upon which to hang Battaglia’s photos. Director Kim Longinotto (Dreamcatcher, Pink Saris) gives us just a taste of the artist’s work, enough to see the reason she’s being honored with a film about her and enough to accompany what’s said of the photography, particularly specific pictures. Fortunately, the internet exists and we can seek out more images online. Or even buy one of Battaglia’s books. Meanwhile, along with that taste of Battaglia’s work, we get to spend a lot of time with the artist and come to understand the context of her photography.

As a photojournalist, Battaglia primarily documented the dominance of the mafia in Sicily, from the 1970s through the turn of the century. Many of her pictures are of crime scenes, graphically capturing dead bodies sprawled out in pools of blood on sidewalks or seated behind the wheels of bullet-ridden cars. Some of them also snapped the drama around these dead, as police are investigating and bystanders are mesmerized and horrified, family members crying out in anguish. One famous image she shot indoors of a prostitute and her friends who were all killed as they sat around a living room looks like it could have been staged, while other images catch moments of action stunningly frozen in time. Battaglia also shot funerals, families, mafia trials, candid portraits of crime bosses and political officials.

In contrast against all the images of the dead, Battaglia’s own story is presented as a string of romantic relationships, most of them with much younger men, as well as a celebration of a woman who found herself and her calling late in life. She was already 40 years old — newly divorced from the husband she’d married at 16 and a mother of three — when her career began at a newspaper in Milan. Shortly after, a mafia war escalated as the Corleonesi clan sought to rule over Sicily, despite the fact that their leader, Luciano Leggio, was in prison, and Battaglia began covering all the violence that ensued in Palermo for the newspaper L’Ora.

Shooting the Mafia plays out, in part, as a history of the bloodshed and the eventual attempts to take the Cosa Nostra down legally, through the perspective of Battaglia’s lens and life. In addition to her own photographs providing some illustration of this history, Longinotto includes all the necessary news clips and archival footage. For the biographical side, the film features a few additional interviewees — all Battaglia’s former lovers — and scenes from old Italian movies employed to dramatically represent moments from the subject’s early life that have no actual filmed documentation (not my favorite doc device, though here it’s brief). But none of these visual accessories are ever as engaging as her photographs or as Battaglia herself.

We never see Longinotto, but we can sense her presence in all the scenes with her subject. There’s a feeling of eavesdropping on a conversation between two close friends where only one of them is talking. You can tell Battaglia felt comfortable sharing her story with the filmmaker, not so much as the focus of an interview but as a casual participant in the discussion of oneself. As the biographical history goes on, Battaglia reflects on how it became more personal after she became a politician herself and a friend of multiple prominent officials who would become victims of the Cosa Nostra. Still a photographer at the time, she couldn’t bring herself to shoot the scenes of those murders.

“The photos I didn’t take hurt me most,” she says on screen. “I never took them, I miss them.” It’s a powerful moment in the film, for Battaglia in admitting the personal got in the way of the professional, in how disrespectful she feels about not doing her job with them — perhaps also in realizing the hurt that others felt about the images she created of their loved ones (there’s mention earlier of that murdered prostitute photo upsetting its subject’s daughter)? It’s also a strong moment for those of us in the audience already wishing we could see more of Battaglia’s work in the film as we suddenly consider the pictures we don’t see because they don’t even exist. Suddenly, the doc gives us some heavy issues to contemplate.

Documentaries that deal with subject matter pertaining to other visual media will always have a great significance, even if the film’s main concentration is on the more superficial level of what the images represent and who took them. What should or shouldn’t or can’t be captured and why (I’m already seeing a theme in this year’s Sundance docs, including the former model profile The Disappearance of My Mother and a film I’ll name after it premieres that similarly climaxes with an address of images not captured). Both the history of the Cosa Nostra and the life and work and presence of Battaglia are compelling enough on their own. Almost incidentally, but surely consciously, Longinotto gives us more. And it’s plenty. You won’t miss a thing.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.