“We’re flying!” As a child, Rita (Miriana Faja) is enchanted by her father: he defends her against her angry mother, then transports her into the Sicilian countryside on the back of his motorbike, zooming along a mountain road as she holds our her arms and beams. “There are millions of stars,” the girl’s voiceover begins, “Each one has a secret, each one has a long journey to make and one of them the smallest and the brightest is making the longest journey of all for me, to arrive in a place called infinity.”
As soon as it’s established, this nostalgic excess in The Sicilian Girl (La Siciliana Ribelle) gives way to trauma, as Rita and hr father, Don Michele (Marcello Mazzarella) come upon a burning home and its shot-and-burned-dead inhabitant. The camera veers from the corpse to wailing women to Rita’s wide eyes just as Michele places his hand over them. Within two minutes of screen time, the child is pitched between extremes, apple of her mafioso daddy’s eye and then, oh dear, exposed to just how he does his business.
Except that she doesn’t quite see it this way. And that’s the hitch that makes the otherwise wholly melodramatic The Sicilian Girl at least a little interesting, the fact that her view is skewed. This point is revealed in her diary-keeping (and her resulting voiceover), which tends not to reflect quite what you see, but shape her emotional experience in a way that corresponds with her own necessarily limited perspective. These limits are drawn from the real-life diaries that serve as basis of Marco Amenta’s film, diaries that became evidence at trial when little Rita grew up and testified against the Sicilian mafia.
This turn to the law is a major rupture for the 18-year-old Rita (Veronica D’Agostino), who hangs on to her dad’s explanation of “justice” throughout her childhood, even when she sees him mete it out harshly. That’s not to say she understands the connections the film puts in front of you, the shot of Rita hiding in the dark, accidentally witnessing a rape and then the rapist’s assault by henchmen who “truss him up” so that he strangles himself. You might get the idea that Michele has a hand in this punishment, as you see him with the man before and after, but she misses all that, and instead takes her dad’s line on justice when an investigative judge from Palermo, prosecutor Paolo Borsellino (Gérard Jugnot) asserts that he’s arrived to sort out the burning murder. She tosses a bit of trash his way and hisses, “Go, you chicken shit cop!”
You can see how she comes by this attitude, Michele being a little hot under his own collar when it comes to dismissing outsiders. He suggests Borsellino, a State employee, knows nothing of the “real Sicily,” the “thirsty Sicily without any water, the frightened Sicily where the State doesn’t do justice.” But even as Rita assumes her dad’s version is “real,” the movie hints that it’s probably not: her dad, whom you see cross the other big deal don, Salvo (Mario Pupella), is shot dead in front of her, sensationally in the town square. She’s wearing her bright white communion dress and, to underline the drama, has just implored Michele not to tell her mother, who will “kill her” for playing in it. Yes, she’s smeared with blood, and even grabs up her dad’s gun, planning vengeance in the style to which she is accustomed.
Her brother Carmelo (Carmelo Galati) convinces her to wait for the right moment, and so the movie cuts ahead five years, which—despite Carmelo’s assertions, is still not the right moment. More mayhem leaves Rota with fewer options than she has always imagined as a mafia princess, and so she turns at last to Borsellino, offering her testimony against the killers and drug dealers in return for his promise to “help you all we can with your personal vendetta.” When he asks her to clarify what’s in the diaries, she answers flatly, “Can’t you read? Stuff.” He comes right back, “Stuff that we’ll need to verify.”
The verification “process” is reduced to a single shot of a bulletin board, crowded with push-pinned photos and transcripts, connected by hand-drawn arrows. Borsellino is nearly giddy: “These bloodthirsty peasants all belong to the same criminal organization and we build up one huge case, we can stop them!” This entails keeping Rita alive, that is, hiding her in the Witness Protection Program. Rita underscores her sense of isolation with black clothing and long walks under dark architecture, one tripping into a scary sequence where she imagines she’s being followed, at which point the camera starts chasing her through looming shadows and fast-cut tilty angles.
As Rita contends with her new life—and the impossibility of ever going back to hr old one—she learns that her mother blames her for what’s gone wrong, for challenging the system that has “always been this way.” Her mother (Lucia Sardo) is monstrously stereotypical, glowering, thick, and fond of black shawls, apparently embodying every childhood fear Rita repressed or wished away when her father was around to take her out into the mostly sunny (if occasionally smoky) countryside. The stark strokes with which the film paints Rita’s dwindling options helps to keep you locked inside her narrow view: even when you see Borsellino or his young assistant, Bruni (Paolo Briguglia), apart from Rita, their focus on her, in conversation and in focus, continues to limit your understanding of context or choices.
By the time Rita appears in the courtroom, her former famiglia members have now turned furious adversaries: from behind their cages, the men call her names and threaten her. Salvo’s silence is even more chilling. As she speaks, she has her back turned to the courtroom, making for a dramatic visual tableau—the blurred background faces spread like a sea of menace behind her. The defense’s first line of attack is to call her a liar, not to mention a disturbed child unable to tell fantasy from fact.
She is all of that, as well as an angry girl with nowhere to go. She has certainly lied in her past as well as to the judge. So, for all the moral principle she’s apparently developed over the past few months of preparing for the trial, you doubt her. Though she professes to now know the difference between justice and revenge, this doesn’t seem the most important lesson, after all. How she sees is still a question.