The Sicilian Girl (Music Box Films, NR)

Atria’s story is clearly important to Amenta, but he hasn’t managed to translate his enthusiasm into a film that will grip audiences the way her story has clearly engaged him.

No one would question the courage of Rita Atria, the real-life model for the central character of Rita Mancuso in Marco Amenta’s The Sicilian Girl. Born and raised in the small Sicilian town of Partanna, she lost her father at age 11 to a mafia hit. For the next six years she kept meticulous records about everything she observed relating to the mafia. At age 17, after her only brother Carmelo died in an attempt to avenge their father’s death, she broke the code of silence. She took the evidence she had been carefully collecting to authorities in Palermo, where they formed the basis for the prosecution of numerous Mafiosi.
Unfortunately the real story of Rita Atria is more interesting than Amenta’s film, which feels like a made-for-television movie intended for an audience already familiar with the story (Amenta wrote the screenplay with Sergio Donati and Gianni Romoli, both of whom have extensive television experience). Atria’s story is clearly important to Amenta—she was also the subject of his 1997 documentary Diario di un siciliana ribelle—but he hasn’t managed to translate his enthusiasm into a film that will grip audiences the way her story has clearly engaged him.
The best thing about The Sicilian Girl is its first 35 minutes, set in 1984, in which we are treated to a lively portrait of the 8-year-old Rita (Miriana Faja) who clearly fears nothing. She races around the village with her playmate Vito (Lorenzo Rosone), smarts off to her weary mother (Lucia Sardo) and is indulged by her father Don Michele (Marcello Mazzarella), a local made man to whom other villagers appeal for justice.
Amenta does not downplay the threat of violence that is ever-present in Rita’s picturesque village; it’s not long before we see two victims of Mafia execution, one seemingly parboiled and the other trussed up so he would strangle himself. The police try to investigate but are greeted with the proverbial wall of silence. Everyone knows better than to talk, because they know the consequences that would follow.
Fast-forward to an 11-year-old Rita in her white First Communion dress who sees her beloved father gunned down before her eyes. She’s too young to understand what has really happened and goes to her uncle, Don Salvo (Mario Pupella) for assistance. Warned by her older brother (Carmelo Galati) that Salvo was behind the hit and that they must bide their time to avenge it, Rita begins filling notebooks with information about how the Mafia operates in her village. It’s not difficult; they are so confident in their immunity from prosecution that they make little effort to hide their activities.
Fast-forward again to Rita (now Veronica D’Agostino) at age 17. Vito (now Francesco Casisa) is working for Don Salvo, Carmelo’s quest for vengeance backfires and Rita flees to Palermo where she presents her notebooks to a judge (Gerard Jugnot; the character is modeled on Paolo Borsellino). She goes into a witness protection plan and comes out of her small-town shell a bit, acquiring a boyfriend, going disco dancing and experimenting with clothes in colors other than black. It’s hard not to admire the spirit of this young woman who gave up everything to challenge a corrupt system, and one can only ponder what she might have accomplished given half a chance. But this part of the film is mostly a slog of meetings, paperwork and safe houses punctuated by random outbursts of temper. It doesn’t make for very interesting viewing, not even the courtroom scenes which should have been an automatic slam dunk.
Clips of the real Rita and her funeral (controversial because they could easily lead to retribution for those pictured) that form a coda to the fictional portrayal have more life than most of Amenta’s film. It’s a real shame because this is an important story that would seem to offer plenty of hooks for any filmmaker. The major problem is the film’s construction as a series of discrete scenes, a choice which pretty much kills any attempt by the audience to become emotionally involved with the story. Instead, it feels like the Cliff’s Notes version of the case, an aide-memoire for those already familiar with it. | Sarah Boslaugh


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