MAFIA: Two brave Italians with courage: one as a writer, the other as a photographer.

Truls Lie
Truls Lie
Published date: March 16, 2019

The old theatre at the Berlinale’s «Talent Campus» is filled to the brim after it was emptied for security reasons before we were allowed to enter.

The Italian author Roberto Saviano is sitting opposite me, four meters away, in a black armchair. Discretely on either side of him are two heavily built men in black, hands crossed and armed, constantly on the lookout. Saviano needs police protection after taking on the Naples mafia (The Cammora) in his book Gomorra (2006), and the following film Gomorra (2008) and TV series Gomorrah (2014 – ).

Saviano (39) has bravely spoken up against the Italian mafia. His most recent work is the novel The Piranhas (2016). He also co-wrote the script for the film with this same title based on the novel, which is now in the main competition in Berlin. The film festival awarded it with The Silver Bear for Best Screenplay.

Letizia Battaglia (84)

I also meet Letizia Battaglia (84), who has criticised and disclosed the reality of the mafia for years. This famous photographer  was portrayed in Kim Longinotto’s documentary Shooting the Mafia. Both Saviano and Battaglia state clearly that the image we have been served through mafia films such as The Godfather Trilogy (Coppola, 1972/74/90) and Goodfellas (Scorsese, 1990), is wrong. Italian-speaking Saviano calls it an act of aestheticizing. Italian-speaking Battaglia, with her reddish-pinkish hair, almost spits suddenly out in English «It’s shit!» in response to my question about these films, which according to them are romanticizing, and portray criminals as charismatic characters to the adoration of many.

Poor teenagers in Naples today earn around 50 euros for an honest week’s work – but, as Saviano says, the prospect of earning 500 or 5000 euros as criminals is far more tempting. Director Claudio Giovannesi chose for the film Piranhas young amateur actors from Naples. Young «un-spoiled» 15 year olds who – in the film – claim they «wouldn’t harm a fly!», but are soon caught in a vicious cycle of crime and violence ending in tragedy. According to Saviano many of them feel they do not have a choice: 30 percent drop out of school, and the unemployed lack respect and are ridiculed in society. The director also shows how crime can be a moral decision motivated by the need to provide for your family, protect your neighbourhood gang or your mother’s shop against the mafia and other external threats. This  decision leads most often to a tragic fate. But a fate that is admittedly reminiscent of the story told in The Godfather: Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) starts off as the «un-spoiled» son, but ends up as an infamous mafia boss blessed by the pope – and, as in a Greek tragedy, ends up alone after his beloved daughter is murdered.


In Shooting the Mafia we see Battaglia who photographed the Cosa Nostra’s atrocities in the 1970s and grew tired of shooting «blood, blood, and more blood». This was 30 years before Saviano wrote about the Camorra in Naples. Back then, Battaglia was the first female photographer to work for an Italian daily newspaper – the left-wing L’ora in Palermo. She could report as many as seven mafia related killings a day – 1000 a year. 

Shooting the Mafia

Shooting the Mafia finally shows how the city of Palermo tried to rid itself of the mafia, for instance in the major court case that convicted almost 400 people in 1986. But in 1992, the Cosa Nostra sought revenge and the highly admired judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were murdered. That, however, proved to be the last straw for the people of Palermo, as the film clearly shows in its portrayal of the angry citizens. Still. After Battaglia put down her Pentax camera in 1986 and served as a member of the local parliament in Palermo for a decade, she claims that the mafia is still very much in charge.

Likewise, our Italian critic, Francesca Borri, says the same is the case for her hometown Barri. With the mafia today acting almost as «a state within the state», they no longer need to murder people. For the last 20 years, Berlusconi’s Italy has let itself be infiltrated at the very top. In the words of a young widow shouting out during Falcone’s funeral in Shooting the Mafia, «You never change!»

Italian film

From My Brilliant Friend .HBO, Saverio Costanzo

In addition to well-known series such as the great My Brilliant Friend from Naples (HBO, Savero Constanzo, based on Elena Ferrante’s novel) and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope / The New Pope – several young filmmakers were in the running in Berlin with films such as Normal, Anbessa, Dafne, Flesh Out and Selfie (Agostino Ferrente, with phone videos of young people in Naples). Italy has many talented filmmakers, including some very brave ones: Letizia Battaglia received multiple death threats, but even without protection, she never experienced an actual attempt at her life. Roberto Saviano is half her age and has spent the last 12 years heavily protected wherever he goes. When he last visited Naples, he was escorted by two dozen armed guards, and driven around in a bulletproof car.

Nonetheless, Saviano says that he feels it necessary to reveal the most barbaric inner workings of the mafia – if that is what it takes to make society react as a whole. And at internet – as is to be expected – you can read that the mayor of Naples, Luigi de Magistris, now has called Saviano a lost citizen who «no longer has a Neapolitan body and soul». The mayor reminds the Silver Bear winner about the citizens of Naples who stand in the dirt working to improve the city – allegedly helping those who have suffered in the hands of the mafia. And also the popular comedian Biago Izzo (Radio2) refers to Saviano as someone who has left Naples and thus has no right to make negative statements or serve «clichés» about the city.

The mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, however, is on the same side as Saviano and Battaglia, and is trying to combat the still highly active mafia. Orlando radically wants Palermo to be open, which also goes against the official policies of Italy’s strict response to the refugee crisis. Bravo!

See also Shooting the Mafia.

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