When we think of the Sicilian Mafia, archetypes immediately jump to mind of Robert De Niro in The Godfather: Part II, as a young Vito Corleone shot in gauzy summer light in the idyllic countryside. Through films that glorify the Cosa Nostra, we have been taught to idolize and root for these dangerous and unforgiving men. As an honorable, honest Sicilian, director Marco Amenta wants you to see the other side of the story.
The Sicilian Girl is the dramatized (but true-to-life) tale of Rita Atria [note: link contains spoilers], the daughter of a Sicilian “Don” whose picture-perfect childhood was shattered by the murder of her father (and later her brother) by a rival Mafioso. A preteen when her father was killed, Atria kept journals throughout her adolescence, as she became aware of the criminal underbelly of her small village. When she was 17 and her brother was murdered, Atria (Veronica D'Agostino) went to the authorities in Palermo (whom she once despised) and offered up her evidence in a heroic effort to bring justice—and yes, a little revenge—to her families’ tragedies.
Atria’s story is well known in Italy, since the trials that came about because of her revelations were of national interest. The Mafia’s terroristic quality was brought into sharp relief when—as the whole country watched—judges involved with the case were murdered in cold blood.
Though The Sicilian Girl is Amenta’s first narrative feature, he has made several documentaries about war, revolution, and the Mafia (including one about Atria). After winning awards in Italy—the film is now playing at Film Forum in NYC. We caught up with Amenta last week, where he discussed his love for Sicily, Atria’s heroism, and the precautions he has to take to stay safe.
Director Marco Amenta
Tribeca: You first made a documentary about Rita. How did you come to know about this story? Is it just something everyone knows about in Italy?
I grew up in Sicily, and when I started to work as a photojournalist, I took photos of the Mafia, etc. I left when I was 19 to work in Paris as a journalist, and to study film. So for 10 years I was in Paris, but being an immigrant, your heart is still in your country. And Sicily is not just any country—it’s a special place. People from islands—Ireland, Cuba, Sicily—there is something special about being from an island; small islands have big histories that are known all over the world.
Tribeca: So you were away for the trials?
Yes, but her story was not known until later. I was away when the killing of the judges happened, and I felt the need to come back to Sicily to do research as a director, but first as a Sicilian. Sicily was shocked—Italy was shocked—by the killings of the judges. You understood that the Mafia was still there, and still strong.
So I wanted to do something, and her story allowed me to treat the subject of the Mafia in a different way. For the first time, a young girl fought against the Mafia, against her own family. It’s a different point of view from movies like The Godfather, where the heroes are the bad guys, which is ethically questionable. So I wanted to change the perspective completely, to show the bosses, the godfathers, for what they really are—not beautiful and handsome like DeNiro, but ugly cowards.
The heroine is the only one with the courage to fight without weapons. That’s what interested me.
And also, it’s important because she grew up in a Mafia family, and for her, when she was growing up, everything was fine; she didn’t understand that world. Little by little as she grew up, she realized the world where she lived was like a fake world. Her father was a godfather, her brother was a godfather, and that world was awful, actually. That’s the bluff that Mafia people make everybody believe—they think they are great, brave men of honor, but when you get out of that, you realize that [it is not true].
Tribeca: Growing up in Sicily, did you see things? Did you know what was going on?
A lot of people in Sicily don’t want to see. They say, “If you [stay away from] them, you can have a normal life.” I personally saw, by chance, people being killed in my street three times: in 1982, when I was a kid, we heard shooting from the window and saw bodies falling down. Then they shot the father of my best friend, because he was a [banker], and apparently he didn’t want to lend money for corruption. (They didn’t kill him, but they shot him in the leg.) And then they killed the relative of a Mafia witness in my street as well.
So maybe you don’t consciously realize, but [these experiences] are inside you. From Paris, when I heard about the killings, it all came out. I felt my belonging to my country, and also the love. The love and the hate—that a few Mafia people can ruin a wonderful country. 95% of the people are honest, they work everyday, they are nice people. It’s a shame we have to be famous in the world because of the Mafia or corrupted politicians, because we are nice people. So that’s why I wanted to tell Rita’s story.
Tribeca: Did Rita’s heroism cause actual change?
Yes. On the judiciary level, yes, because many people were arrested and brought to trial. Of course some were acquitted—like the mayor of the town—because the political level is always the most difficult [to prosecute]. But also on a metaphorical level—a social level—her story was important, because she showed that it was possible to fight, to rebel against the Mafia. Her message was very strong.
Tribeca: What kind of research went into it? Did you have the actual diaries? Are they public record?
No, I worked a lot to get the diaries. They were a key piece of the trials [some were still going on], and I had to wait until they were finished to get access to the true diaries. When I read them, I was emotional, because when you read them, there are drawings, etc., and you realize she was a little girl. She was not some intellectual heroine with an ideology; she was a little girl who little by little went against something bigger than her.
I met all the policemen, the family, the mother… I did a lot of research because I am a photojournalist, so my approach is to go to people, to reality, and to start with the real people. That is also how the director of Gomorrah [another modern Mafia film] worked—when you approach Mafia or war films, often the directors take from stereotypes of the genre. I tried to take from the real people—the expressions, the fear of the judge, the psychology of these people. I’ve seen the fear of people in the village, so I tried to put in the characters the things I took from true life. In this way, you can be realistic, and not romantic or fake.
Tribeca: Are you considered a threat to the Mafia?
I’ve received some strange phone calls… For example, I don’t go in the village where this story took place. That’s why we shot in another village, we changed the names, etc. For the documentary, they sued me, the Mafia people in the village. They are starting to get smart: instead of trying to kill you, they try to take your money! I won this trial; in fact, one of them has to give ME money. But I will never ask for the money from him. [laughs] Actually, it’s Rita’s boyfriend. He went to jail for some time.
Tribeca: It’s very dramatic!
So they don’t like me. The village is not a safe place for me. Some people wanted to do the grand premiere in the village, but I said, “No, no, that is not a safe place for me.”
Veronica D'Agostino Tribeca: Can you talk a bit about how you found your lead actress, Veronica D'Agostino? She was amazing.
I did thousands of tests, and she was the first who came. In Italy, some of the producers wanted a glamorous star, and I said, “No, no, no. I want a true Sicilian, with a strong accent, who looks like a naïve, genuine girl.” Not a big star, like a pinup. I insisted on that.
Veronica has won a lot of prizes in Italy for this interpretation, even though she never trained as an actor. She has this feeling inside—she played with guts. Unconsciously, she used the Actors’ Studio Method that DeNiro plays, that Pacino plays—she doesn’t act, but she becomes the character. She was a pleasure to work with.
Tribeca: Is the Sicilian dialect/accent quite strong?
Yes, the first part of the film is subtitled into Italian. Even in Italy, in the cinema, they needed subtitles. Because I like the actors to talk in their true language, and the Mafia guys don’t talk in Italian, they talk in the dialect. [Some of the actors] are not really professional actors; they are still very Sicilian. One guy was in prison for ten years! So I tried to work with people who are true. When you force them to speak in Italian, you push the trueness out of the actor.
Tribeca: Gérard Jugnot, the actor who plays the prosecutor is French, no?
Yes, he is a comic French star.
Tribeca: So was he dubbed?
Yes, he was dubbed by a Sicilian actor, but he was speaking French when he was acting.
Tribeca: Wow. So why did you cast him?
The Italian judge is a very famous judge; everybody knows his face. I didn’t want an Italian actor, because everyone would say, “He doesn’t look like him.” It’s like if you make a movie about Clinton, or Bush, if you put an actor that everyone knows, they would say, “No, that’s Clooney. It’s not Clinton.” So the big Italian actors would have been too famous to do the role. And because they work all the time, they have already played judges… I wanted someone new.
Also, this is a coproduction with France, like the Italian/French coproductions of the 70s and 80s, where there was a mix of Italian actors, French actors, American actors. It’s something that in modern films you don’t often see, but in the past, like Luchino Visconti: in The Leopard, you see Burt Lancaster playing a Sicilian aristrocrat, and Alain Delon playing another Italian guy…
So in the past, [mixing actors from various countries] allowed a film to open in a number of countries.
Tribeca: What has the reaction to the film been like in Italy?
Yes, it was received well by the audiences, the critics. It received a lot of nominations, and in Sicily, it actually won the prize for the film most seen in the schools of Italy. Because the younger generation doesn’t know these facts, doesn’t know this heroine. And many people don’t know her history, actually—the story of the judges [who were killed] were very well-known, but her history got sort of lost.
Tribeca: I understand you have a Tribeca connection?
At the Festival, De Niro was there, and we grew up with him in Mafia films like The Godfather… I thanked him and told him it was an honor for me, as a Sicilian [laughs], to receive a prize from a Sicilian guy like him.