Screening of Con quella faccia da straniera, Luca Scivoletto's documentary about Maria Occhipinti

25 March 2013 saw the Italian premiere of the documentary film by Luca Scivoletto Con quella faccia di straniera – Il viaggio di Maria Occhipinti (With That Outsider’s Face – Matia Occhipinti’s journey), a Pinup production in association with Argo Software and support from various agencies.

This film, the third documentary devoted to the life of Maria Occhipinti is built around interviews with three women closely connected with that life: Maria’s sister Rosina, her daughter Marilena and her grand-daughter Lorenza. The film opens – it could scarcely have done otherwise – with the Non si parte/Don’t go revolt (December 1944-January 1945), a huge rebellion against the war, a revolt which, in the province of Ragusa, assumed the features of an out and out uprising of which Maria was the protagonist. The revolt, internment, prison – these then are the jumping-off point of this film, with great care being taken with the detail and devoted to teasing out the subjective, private side of the interviewees, the upheaval in their lives and the trail left (especially in the case of Maria’s sister and daughter) by the volcanic, tortured life of this 20th century rebel. Interviews with Prof. Uccio Barone, Laura Barone and yours truly help to enrich the historical reconstruction and taken together with what Rosina and Marilena have to say they bring out the singularity of the Non si parte upheaval, it being a social rebellion which the leaders of the Italian Communist Party simply could not fathom, their representation of it later, gradually dismantled in part by Maria Occhipinti’s staking a claim by penning her book Una donna di Ragusa (A Woman from Ragusa), a best-seller that went to three editions in Italy, one in France, two in Sweden, plus a number of serialisations in a range of countries, including one in J P Sartre’s Les Temps modernes.

The director revisits the locations of the rebellions, moving on to Ustica and the Benedettine prison in Palermo where Maria and a number of other rebels were incarcerated, before quickly panning his camera along the itinerary. We have Ragusa, following her return from prison and there are nods to northern Italy, to Tarantini’s home in Milan (voice-over by Giuliana Forattini) and then on to Paris, Montreal and so on. There is a most outstanding interview with the pregnant Marilena, or Maria Lenina, the girl child that Maria was carrying in her womb on that 6 January when she lay down in front of the truck that was rounding up the draft-refusers; Marilena was later born in Ustica and spent the first few months of her life in prison in Palermo; this is the daughter who followed her mother in her long “pilgrimage around the world”, but who called a halt when she turned 18 and decided to stay in Canada.

The film gives us back the idea of an Occhipinti who was a rebel to the end, an indomitable woman who never held back, not even when faced with exploitation nor the temptations of a potentially quiet life: a woman from Ragusa who roamed the world armed with an inquiring mind and courage, only to return in the early 1970s to Rome where she re-entered the fray, surrounded by youngsters (some of whom are interviewed), either on her own or alongside feminist movements (Adele Cambria tells of this). Her protests outside parliament on behalf of Ragusan peasants whose land had been seized were unforgettable: this was a Maria Occhipinti who was serene and unstoppable, forever bristling at the confined spaces of home or local; who made her way back to Ragusa where she endured ostracisation by family and fellow townspeople: and went around surrounded by youngsters from the anarchist group, proudly claiming ownership of a history that is just beginning to crawl out from under the lies they have tried to bury it under. And we find her also in Comiso in 1987, talking in the public streets in opposition to US missile bases and war.

Up until she was jailed she had been a communist, but she was abandoned by the party to her fate, sacrificed like many another to the reason of state which, in the wake of the volte-face in Salerno, called for the rebuilding of an army and for conscription that had not been properly thought through, and which triggered rebellion in dozens of places around Sicily and was faced with 250,000 refuseniks and deserters across the whole of southern Italy.

There is, however, one glaring omission: the years when Maria was back in Ragusa following her jail time: the party had damned the revolts as fascistic and reactionary, thereby besmirching the populace which had mounted them; and in the anarchists Maria then found the political and human solace to which she was to remain bound for the rest of her life; she threw herself into several years of intense libertarian political activity and started writing for the anarchist press and acquired a maturity that prompted her to express her rebelliousness in unmistakably anti-authoritarian idiom. Her political and affectionate bonds with Franco Leggio started back then and will go on forever; Franco was her reference point in Ragusa back in the tempestuous 1940s as well as during her emigrant’s trips from Naples to Rome to Milan to Paris. Of all of this however, there is no trace in this film, making it hard for anybody stumbling across Maria Occhipinti for the first time to understand how, when and why Maria turned into an anarchist. My contention is that one cannot tell Maria Occhipinti’s story without also telling that of Franco Leggio; and the film, as I personally verified along with a few of the audience, without this background, without some reference to that maturation process between 1946 and 1949, a picture emerges of an instinctive rebel which is only part of the story. Which is a pity, for the film is a fine and winning one, with moving contents; it has been masterfully crafted with off-screen narration by Loredana Cannata (re)voicing Maria and she is poignant and strong; the director has also included a snatch from a lengthy anarchist May Day rally in Ragusa in 2011 when, for two hours, the audience hung on the speaker’s words: the extract being one in which yours truly mentions Maria Occhipinti and Franco Leggio by name as pillars of anarchism in the Iblea region.

To conclude: Con quella faccia da straniera is an extremely pertinent film because it brings back to centre stage a certain approach to opposition to war, direct individual action, personal involvement, the memory and roots of our people, all of these values which will never be forgotten; and all of this cannot help but benefit the young who are going to be put to the test. As emerged at the second showing of the film in Modica, these days there are more women in Niscemi lying down in front of the trucks arriving to build the MUOS* and the story of this great woman lives on in them.

PG (Pippo Gurrieri?)

* Multiple User Objective System, a US all-services military coordination system, one of the main bases of which is to be built in Niscemi, Sicily.

From: Sicilia Libertaria April 2013. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.