With That Outsider’s Face – The journey of Maria Occhipinti (Con quella faccia di straniera – Il viaggio di Maria Occhipinti) a documentary review by Pippo Gurrieri (Sicilia Libertaria)

Maria Occhipinti (1921-1996)

25 March 2013 saw the Italian premiere of Luca Scivoletto’s documentary Con quella faccia di straniera – Il viaggio di Maria Occhipinti (With That Outsider’s Face – The journey of Maria Occhipinti). This film — the third documentary devoted to the life of Maria Occhipinti (1921-1996)— is built around interviews with three women closely connected to Maria: her sister Rosina, her daughter Marilena and her grand-daughter Lorenza. The film opens – it could scarcely have done otherwise – with the widespread Non si parte/ ‘Don’t go!’ anti-war movement of January 1944-December 1945. It was a revolt that, in Sicily’s Ragusa province, took on the features of an open uprising, of which Maria was the protagonist. The revolt, then internment and prison, these are the starting points point of this film, with great care being taken with the details, and the teasing out of the personalities of the interviewees: the upheaval it caused in their lives and the trail it left  — especially so 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 (Pippo Gurrieri) help to enrich the historical reconstruction. Together with what Rosina and Marilena have to say the interviews illustrate the uniqueness of the Non si parte movement, a social rebellion which the leaders of the Italian Communist Party simply could not fathom, their representation of which was later dismantled, in part, by Maria Occhipinti’s in her book Una donna di Ragusa (A Woman of Ragusa), a best-seller that ran to three editions in Italy, one in France, two in Sweden, plus a number of serialisations in a range of countries, including Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes.

The director revisits the locations of the rebellions — including Ustica and the Benedettine prison in Palermo where Maria and other rebels were held — before quickly panning his camera along the route. We have Ragusa, following her return from prison with nods to northern Italy, to Tarantini’s home in Milan (voice-over by Giuliana Forattini) and then to Paris, Montreal and so on. There is an outstanding interview with the pregnant Marilena, or Maria Lenina, the daughter Maria was carrying in her womb on that 6 January when she lay down in front of the truck rounding up the draft-refusers. Marilena was 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 shows a rebel to the end, an indomitable woman who never pulled her punches, not even when faced with exploitation or the temptations of a 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 with feminist movements (as explained by Adele Cambria). Her protests outside parliament on behalf of Ragusan peasants whose lands were seized were unforgettable: this was a Maria Occhipinti who was serene and unstoppable, forever bristling at the confined spaces of home or local; who returned to Ragusa — where she was ostracised by family and townspeople — surrounded by youngsters from the anarchist group, proudly claiming ownership of a history that is just beginning to crawl out from under the lies under which they have tried to bury it. In 1987 we find her in Comiso, talking in the streets in opposition to US missile bases and war.

Until she was arrested she had been a member of the Italian Communist Party, but was subsequently abandoned, sacrificed like many others for raisons d’Parti which, in the wake of the party’s volte-face in Salerno, called for the rebuilding of an army and for conscription, triggering dozens of protests in dozens around Sicily and leaving the Italian state facing  250,000 refuseniks and countless deserters across the whole of southern Italy.

There is one glaring omission in the film: the years when Maria was back in Ragusa following her time in jail: the party had denounced the revolts as fascistic and reactionary, besmirching the populace who mounted them; it was among the local anarchists that Maria found the political and human solace to which she was to remain committed for the rest of her life; throwing herself into years of intense libertarian political activity and writing for the anarchist press, acquiring a maturity that prompted her to express her rebelliousness in an unmistakably anti-authoritarian idiom.

Marina di Ragusa, 1973: Franco Leggio and Stuart Christie

Her political and affectionate bonds with Franco Leggio began back then and will go on forever; Franco was her reference point in Ragusa back in the tempestuous 1940s as well as during her travels from Naples to Rome to Milan to Paris. Of all of this, however, there is no trace in the film, making it hard for anybody stumbling across Maria Occhipinti for the first time to understand how, when and why Maria became 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 some of the audience — without this background, without some reference to that process of maturation 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 a poignant and strong Maria. The director has also included a clip 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 a highly pertinent film because it brings back to centre stage a certain approach to the anti-war movement, direct individual action, personal involvement, the memory and roots of our people, all of these values that will never be forgotten; and all of which cannot help but benefit the young who are going to be put to the test. As became clear 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 it is in them that the story of this great woman lives on in them.

Pippo Gurrieri. Sicilia Libertaria April 2013 (Translated by Paul Sharkey)

* 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.