There are two tales at play in Kim Longinotto's Shooting the Mafia, and the film often struggles with juggling them both. Despite some thematic correlation regarding the overall story of Sicily in the latter half of the 20th century, you really are signing up for dueling movies, neither of which are quite as thorough as one might like.
One half of the film focuses on the decades-long saga of the Cosa Nostra, the development of heroes brave enough to dare taking them down, and the boiling civic outrage that occurred after those figures of hope are slain in cold blood. This aspect of the film is purely informative, like a History Channel documentary, told with copious amounts of impersonal footage from the era.
On the other side of that is the story of Letizia Battaglia, a free-spirited woman who lives her life like a 21st-century feminine icon regardless of the era in which she actually lived. Married young, Battaglia could not stand the bonds of domesticity and instead broke free to live a life of her own, embracing her sexuality and determined to independently support herself.
She did so by joining a newspaper and eventually becoming a photographer. Almost instantly, her beat became crime scene photos from Mafia hits. We see a ton of them in the film. None are too graphic, but they remain haunting all the same. Their cold black-and-white antiquity morbidly highlights the mortality she captures.
The two stories are fairly united during this portion of the film as Mafia violence and Battaglia’s career ascend simultaneously. Battaglia doesn’t photograph this violence impassionately and tries to use her photos to break people through the Code of Silence enforced by Mafia intimidation. Eventually she quits photography and enters politics. It is here the stories diverge. Battaglia’s fight against the Mafia loses the spotlight to figures of much larger stature than her own, overwhelming her role in the struggle and delegating her perspective to a viewing citizen just like everyone else. Fortunately, Sicily’s rage at Mafia violence has caught up with hers by this time, so her minimized role is somewhat fitting. She is one of many.
Except she could never really be anonymous. She is too big, too striking a figure. We watch her walk the streets, greeted lovingly by everyone she meets. Two different ex-lovers reconnect with her throughout the film, both of them wearing deep wistfulness and nostalgia for their long-ago shared time together. Letizia Battaglia is quite passionate, far from an unemotional person. And yet it is clear her orbit changes the lives of others for more than she is changed by theirs.
As a film about one woman’s experience with the Mafia through her photography, Shooting the Mafia doesn’t quite deliver simply because that's not how the story of Battaglia ultimately shakes out. The film does, however, introduce us to a character of great interest. For that alone, it is worth it, with a long lesson on Cosa Nostra thrown in there as a nice bonus. That may be an overly optimistic take, but I’m also fighting against the dozens of dead body pictures I just saw.