The late great Gene Siskel once said, “Any idea can make for a good movie if it’s in the right hands.” Kim Longinotto’s Shooting the Mafia is a good idea in the wrong hands. The documentary follows the early life and career of Letizia Battaglia, an Italian woman who planned to become a nun before finding her true calling: photography. Letizia’s black and white photos, displayed many times in the film, have a forceful elegance to them – she always seems to know the best angles at which to photograph her subjects. Her obvious talent allowed her to become the first woman in Italian history to
work as a photographer at a major newspaper.

The documentary frames this as her attempt to get out from under the patriarchal thumbs of her father and her husband. She begins to photograph victims of the Mafia and these photos – sad, gory and understated – are the highlight of the film. Spurred by her experiences, Letizia becomes a politician in an attempt to curb Mafia power.

Letizia is a talented and admirable individual, but Shooting the Mafia sadly lacks the force of her art and political activism. The film is a collection of talking head interviews, stock footage and stock footage of talking heads assembled with all of the cold competence of a History Channel program but no real verve. Letizia, now a senior citizen, appears throughout the film being interviewed. While her life story is inspiring, she recounts it in a dry, sedate way.

One can’t help but wonder if the film would be more exciting if it was a bio pic about her life where we could see her evolution and emotions in a way more direct than her recounting them many years later. Other figures in the film – her husband, various Mafia men, Letizia’s boyfriend who was 18 years her junior – do not emerge as distinct, which is a shame. Anyone who made it to the top of an organized crime syndicate or dated a woman as vibrant as the young Letizia Battaglia certainly must have been a force of personality. And while the film is about the Mafia and the Italian government, it does not shed as much light on these subjects as one would hope it would; showcasing the inner workings of either organization would be vastly more interesting than showcasing someone who is locked out of the higher echelons of both of them. As a film, Shooting the Mafia is a nice first draft.

Sunday, May 5, 9:15 PM, Isabel Bader Theatre