Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Dec 02, 2019 6:12 pm 
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YOUNG MAFIOSI SHOOT BY LETIZIA BATTAGLIA 1977

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In this vivid but frustrating little documentary we encounter Letizia Battaglia, a powerful, flaming haired Italian journalist in her eighties who, like Oriana Fallaci, speaks emphatically and chain smokes. Feeling she was nothing and wanting to become somebody, after the age of forty she tells us, she became a news photographer, concentrating on a central force in her native Palermo, the Mafia, whose killings she shot in stark, grainy black and white. This activity makes her seem a kind of Italian Weegee. (Her mere portraits of children and other random images are often more effective.) There is also unidentified stock footage when she's impressionistically describing her early life and loves, which turns her words into a fairy tale of Sicilian repression and feminine revolt. But there is too little detail.

There is also color footage of public events in which Letizia appears and speaks, her hair sometimes dirty blonde, sometimes red, sometimes pink or purple. She rambles self indulgently, lingering on her men, a husband and three lovers, two of whom appear with her for this film. One was 22 when they met, 18 years her junior. Her latest boyfriend, her relationship with whom she says is "sexual, without sex," is himself a photographer, specializing in transsexuals.

The climax of the film is the big trial and sentencing of hundreds of mafiosi as a result of the testimony of Tommaso Buscetta, the story recounted more fully in Marco Bellocchio's The Traitor/Il traditore (NYFF 2019), a film that holds up well against a flamboyant but vague account like this one. Equally emphasized here is the mafia revenge killing of the chief judge Buscetta worked with, Giovanni Falcone and the subsequent murder of Falcone's colleague Paolo Borsellino 57 days later, and the dramatic public outcry. The lament of the wife of Falcone's bodyguard Rosaria Schifan at the funeral is like a crude, kitsch aria. Later Letizia made a beautiful chiaroscuro portrait of her, and says these events led her into a period of depression. But important as this passage is, as Guy Lodge says in his Variety review, it " feels like material for a different movie."

Letizia's focus on the corpses of people killed by the mafia revealed the constancy of their killing and the fact that they murdered not only other mafiosi but ordinary people, including women and children, and we glimpse teenage boys brandishing automatic weapons. All this focused the public gaze on horrors they might rather have ignored. As Peter Bradshaw writes in hisGuardian review, her shots "helped to galvanize" the Italian public "against the mobster bullies" in the 1990's when enthusiasm for the mass trials was in danger of waning.

The trouble with the film is that for Letizia, as for Fallaci, her coverage of major public events winds up seeming to be all about her. She is clearly a powerful, brave, pioneering figure but this style gets in the way of our learning more, such as the details of how she made these remarkable photographs and in what contexts they were published, her subsequent political career as a Green Party councillor, and her uneasy relations with her daughters, who look so much like her in a single group still. Obviously it would be better to see a full-scale museum exhibition of this photographer's work.

Judging by Longinotto's name and the sound track 90% in Italian, I'm guessing the director speaks the language. Guy Lodge explains that she is "one of Britain's trailblaizing female documentarians" but but argues that despite the interest of the subject this doesn't wind up being "one of Longinotto’s more essential works." It is a disappointment.

Shooting the Mafia, 93 mins., debuted at Sundance; ten other festivals. US release Nov. 15, 2019m UK release Nov. 29. Metascore 56%.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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