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Sundance Film Review: ‘Shooting the Mafia’

“I wasn’t a real person,” Letizia Battaglia says of the days before she took to photography. As an unhappily married housewife stifled and abused by Italy’s dominant patriarchy, picking up a camera opened up her life to realms she’d never otherwise have accessed; as a photojournalist specializing in the crimes and rituals of the Cosa Nostra in her hometown of Palermo, she turned her personal vocation into boundary-breaking activism. It’s easy to see why Kim Longinotto, herself one of Britain’s trailblazing female documentarians, would warm to Battaglia’s story. Palpable affection for her subject permeates the otherwise plain, brisk framework of “Shooting the Mafia,” a potted chronicle of Battaglia’s life and career.

Oddly, that apparent artistic empathy hasn’t made for one of Longinotto’s more essential works. Hampered by an interviewee who seems genial but unwilling to give much of herself away, it’s a patchy biography that often seems undecided as to its true subject: Battaglia’s work, or the Mafia warfare unfolding before her lens. Having turned to politics later still in life, Battaglia herself is more interested in discussing the social landscape of organized crime in Italy than in offering much first-hand insight into her extraordinary photography — which itself doesn’t get quite the extensive showcase you might expect here. Battaglia remains a firebrand, and enough compelling material survives an unfocused approach to make “Shooting the Mafia” viable in streaming and ancillary following its Sundance-led festival tour. Still, an opportunity for something more rousing and revelatory has been missed.

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Now 83 years old, with a wily gaze and a shock of hair that varies in color from coral to rose-pink, Battaglia is a charismatic presence even at her most evasive. The film begins as standard cine-memoir, filling in the early, oppressive details of a working-class upbringing that necessitated a rebellious spirit amid suffocating options: At 16, she escaped the control of her domineering father by marrying a husband who refused to let her complete her education. An ensuing struggle with mental illness is glided over, as is what appears to be a troubled relationship with her daughters: “I could talk about it a bit, but I don’t want to,” Battaglia offers bluntly.

On the one hand, who can blame her? On the other, the film struggles a little to paper over these gaps in first-hand perspective. Longinotto’s most creative flourish is to interpolate classic Italian films from the era with Battaglia’s selective reflections on her past, glamorized silver-screen images of Silvana Mangano providing cruel contrast to an unseen but surely grittier reality. (The jarring presence of such extra-mozzarella standards as “O Sole Mio” and “Volare” on the soundtrack is less explicable.) If nothing else, this artifice drives home the point that there was no photography in Battaglia’s life until the 1970s: Divorced and approaching her forties, she began taking pictures, becoming Italy’s first female photographer to be employed by a daily paper.

That trajectory is fully justified by the glimpses we get of Battaglia’s photos: stark, subtly emotive tableaux of sidewalk-level drudgery and violence, in deep-toned monochrome that recalls, accidentally or otherwise, the neorealist cinema of her youth. But she’s loath to reflect on them — “I look at my photos and it’s just blood, blood, blood,” she says dismissively — and so Longinotto essentially changes the subject from art to modern history. Dwelling on a volatile period of Mafia activity from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, an era when Battaglia stepped back from photography to work as a Green Party councillor, the film examines a series of critical, headline-making trials and the assassinations of such investigating magistrates as Giovanni Falcone.

Extensively substantiated with archival news footage, it’s an urgent, informative passage that nonetheless feels like material for a different movie. Little here is viewed through Battaglia’s eyes, and she begins to feel like a secondary presence in her own portrait. Perhaps that’s a pointed irony, as she admits regret over feeling too personally invested to photograph certain tragedies from that period. Meanwhile, the ongoing, now lighter-hearted allusions to her private life — in particular, her series of romances with younger men, many of them fellow artists — sit awkwardly with these more solemn concerns. Not quite a fleshed-out personal study, nor fully a meditation on what Battaglia’s camera sees, this intriguing but frustrating film finally makes the case for letting the photographer’s pictures tell their story.

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