'Shooting The Mafia' Review: A Grim Look At Murder Through A Brave Photographer's Lens [Sundance]

This is the second year in a row I've seen a Sundance documentary about a female photographer who revisits her old work and attempts to put it in a proper historical context. But unlike last year's Generation Wealth, which traced society's obsession with money and fame, Kim Longinotto's Shooting the Mafia is all about power: the oppressive power the Mafia imposed over the people of Sicily for decades, and the power of one photographer's images to show these men for who they truly were.

Letizia Battaglia, an 84-year-old Italian photographer with bright red hair, spent the majority of her career documenting everyday life in Palermo, Sicily. She didn't pick up a camera until she was 40 years old, but she eventually became the first female photographer in Italy to work for a daily newspaper. Her photos captured life and death in the city, the latter often due to the brutal Cosa Nostra – the Sicilian Mafia. She saw her first murder victim only three days after getting hired, and as a beat reporter, Battaglia took photos of victims during a time when there were routinely five murders per day. In one year alone, members of the Mafia killed 1,000 people.

"I was always afraid of her photos," her assistant says in the film, "but then I realized they're our history." This movie also serves as a quasi-history lesson, recounting key events of Battaglia's personal life using clips from old Italian films and moving into interviews about how she risked her life snapping photos of these ruthless gangsters at funerals and out in public. Along the way, her captivating photos fill the screen, frozen moments of horrific violence and the waves of society's sadness and anger that came in the aftermath.

It starts off rocky, but once the film settles into a groove and starts zeroing in on the mafia's most heinous acts, it slowly starts to come alive. The bursts of violence were mostly within the group for years, until the gangsters began targeting public officials – and Battaglia was there to cover the whole thing. Through her photos, and archival news broadcasts from the time, we get an inside look at the 1980s trial of over 400 mafia defendants, and what happened when the group retaliated against the judge.

Shooting the Mafia touches on the unfortunately timeless themes of greed and corruption, and without explicitly drawing a line to America's current political situation, a few parallels emerge. "That moron had devastated our lives," Battaglia laments, referring to Bernardo Provenzano, the mafioso who led the organization before eventually being caught after 42 years in hiding. It's not difficult to think of another moron who's ruined a lot of people's lives in America over the past few years. But ultimately, I found myself wishing this movie would have either gone more macro or more micro, giving us either a larger look at the mafia and its influence and history beyond the '80s and '90s, or spending more time examining the mentality that led to some of Battaglia's extraordinary photos. Instead, it's a mixture of both that ends up feeling sprawling and somewhat unfocused. Her photography is exceptional, and I left feeling as if they deserve a better showcase than this.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10