In 1997 Sicilian-born filmmaker Marco Amenta made an hour-long documentary about Rita Atria, the young woman who risked her life by ratting out various members of the Sicilian mob — including members of her own family — pulling the strings and the triggers in the village of Partanna.
Now the filmmaker has revisited this heroine in a fictionalized feature film. Many of the names have been changed (including the name of the village) and the screenwriters, among them Sergio Donati, co-author of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, pump the story full of standard-grade melodrama. Not to stoke any rivalries, but the movie’s no Gomorrah, the recent, excellent Italian crime drama ripped from the headlines made by the Neopolitan mob.
The Sicilian Girl does, however, hold your interest. We meet Rita as a preteen full of love and respect for her father, one of the local dons. When this old school man of honor opts out of the extended family’s burgeoning drug trade, he’s marked for death, and death comes in the town square, with his wailing daughter smearing her Communion dress with his blood. Years later, when the now-teenage Rita and her brother learn who was behind the killing — Uncle Salvo, criminally sleazy — they vow vengeance.
Certain individual compositions in The Sicilian Girl, photographed by Luca Bigazzi, capture the beauty and menace of the setting very well, such as a fixed shot, just after sundown, of seven Palermo police cars screeching to a halt in the eerily empty town square prior to a raid. Elsewhere, director Amenta exerts a less certain grip on the dramatic tone, allowing his actors the sort of scenery-chewing that belongs to a drama not based in anything like fact. In an entirely different key, meantime, is French character man Gerard Jugnot, playing a Palermo prosecutor whom Rita, played by fledgling actress Veronica D’Agostino, pressures into action. Jugnot’s voice is dubbed, and, while this fact isn’t necessarily enough to thwart a performance’s impact (see Burt Lancaster in Visconti’s The Leopard for a glorious exception to the rule), it adds to a not-quite authenticity.
Around the midpoint, as Rita enters the witness protection program and assumes a new identity in Rome, The Sicilian Girl becomes leaner and more effective in its storytelling.
“This is your new past,” a Roman policeman tells her, as he slips her a sheaf of papers in the weeks prior to her testifying at a mob trial.
“Learn it.” The film works very hard to turn Rita into not just a martyr but a saint. She was likely a more interesting and complicated person than the one we meet here. But there’s little doubt she had as much nerve as anybody she put away.
—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond: firstname.lastname@example.org