When he was a photojournalist, Marco Amenta once surreptitiously took photos of two young Mafiosi who were in hiding. When they heard he was snooping around, they called him and asked to meet at a pizzeria in Corleone, Sicily. "What do you do?" asked Amenta, recalling the story with some reticence. "They could find me if they wanted to. Better to go and talk." At the pizzeria, they made it clear, in their oblique way, that it was in his best interest not to photograph them. The photos were never published.
Such are the risks when much of your career has been spent documenting organized crime in Sicily. His new film, "The Sicilian Girl" (which opened August 4 in New York), is a fictionalized account of Rita Atria, a teenager from a Mafia family whose court testimony helped convict a number of gangsters in the early '90s. He's told the story before, in the 1998 documentary "Diario di una siciliana rebele" ("Diary of a Sicilian Rebel"), winner of the 1998 Prix Italia award for best documentary. Unlike his previous forays into the world of Mafia, including the 2005 doc "Il fantasma di Corleone" ("Ghost of Corleone"), he received no threats while making "The Sicilian Girl."
What made him return to the same story 12 years later?
"A narrative film offers the opportunity to explore the psychology of characters much more than a documentary," the tanned, engaging Amenta said seated in Film Forum's New York offices. "Documentary is about intellect. Narrative talks to the guts."
A melodramatic account of Rita's transformation from fiercely loyal child of a leading Mafioso to vengeful crusader for justice, "The Sicilian Girl" is modeled in many ways on classic Italian neo-realism. Like Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, Amenta studs his cast with non-professional actors. Its star, Veronica D'Agostino, has only a few credits to her name, and her gangster boyfriend is played by a resident of a crime-ridden neighborhood in Palermo, Sicily. (Although the film's male lead is Gerard Jugnot, a major actor-director from France.) According to Amenta, D'Agostino's emotionally explosive performance has drawn comparisons to neo-realist star Anna Magnani. As with De Sica's and Rosselini's films, "The Sicilian Girl" was shot on location, although not in the town where the real-life events took place. After "Diary of a Sicilian Rebel," Amenta said, "They don't like me much there."
As consciously as he borrows from neo-realism, Amenta equally tries to avoid the cliches of gangster films. Unlike most crime films, "The Sicilian Girl" is told from a woman's point of view. Even more striking is the paucity of graphic violence. When one major character is about to be killed, Amenta pulls his camera away, and lets the sound of a solitary gunshot fill in the blanks for the viewer.
"When you approach a genre, like Mafia films, like war films, directors get inspired by all the films in the genre. Often you copy from this and get very far from reality. You get a copy of a copy of a copy," Amenta said. "I used a documentarian's approach. I didn't get from other movies, but from reality… Through my work, I had met Mafia guys, politicians, policemen."
A native of Palermo, Amenta was aware of the Mafia's omnipresence even as a child. At 22, he moved to Paris, where he worked as a globetrotting photojournalist and received his Master's in Cinema. He went on to make several documentaries, including "Born in Bosnia," about the Balkan wars, and "Letter from Cuba," about a young man's struggles after the Cuban Revolution. "The Sicilian Girl" is his first fiction film.
"I was a little afraid of the transition," he admitted. "I was afraid of the team. In documentary, you have five to 10 people; in narrative [film], it's 50-60. But… if you know what you want, it works perfectly, like magic. You're like a conductor of an orchestra."
After the box office success of "The Sicilian Girl" in Italy, Amenta is clearly inspired to play conductor again. He is currently in pre-production on "Banker to the Poor," a feature about Muhammed Yunus, the Nobel Prize-winning creator of microfinance. An economics professor who visited his native Bangladesh and realized the disconnect between what he taught his students and the poverty he saw among his countrymen, Yunus advised taking a "worm's eye view" of the world. Maintaining that kind of direct connection to humanity is of great importance to Amenta.
"It's important to keep doing documentaries while I make features because it keeps me in touch with the real world. The world of cinema can make you leave the world of reality," he said. "To do a documentary is a human experience. You learn from the world around you."