A Very Sicilian Justice: Taking on the Mafia
A story of blackmail, conspiracy, courage and fear. We follow the Italian judge trying to take on the mafia.
A film by Paul Sapin and Toby Follett
Sicilian judge Antonino Di Matteo is one of the most threatened – and protected – men in Italy.
As the chief prosecutor in Italy’s “trial of the century”, he has more than 20 bodyguards, ensuring his safety around the clock.
On trial are 10 men who stand accused of being part of a conspiracy between the mafia and the state. Five of the defendants are mafia bosses and five are members of the political establishment, including senior police chiefs and politicians.
The mafia isn't only the mafia that shoots, bombs and trafficks drugs. That's one aspect of the mafia, the military mafia. The mafia is above all something else. It's an organisation that wants to exercise power in place of the state.
Central to Di Matteo’s case is the story of Italy’s most famous anti-mafia judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.
During the 1980s they prosecuted hundreds of Cosa Nostra members in what was known as the Maxi Trial, the largest mafia court case in history. Four hundred and seventy five mafiosi were brought to court and 346 were found guilty.
“For over 130 years in Italy we pretended the mafia didn’t exist. Not until Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino did we have magistrates in Sicily who said, ‘No. The mafia in Italy exists. The mafia in Sicily exists. And it’s the judiciary’s duty to fight and try to destroy the mafia’,” says Saverio Lodato, author of Forty Years of Mafia.
The Cosa Nostra “boss of bosses”, Salvatore “Toto” Riina, had been tried in absentia and sentenced to life in prison. After the trial, Riina allegedly sought revenge.
Judge Giovanni Falcone was assassinated on May 23, 1992, near the mafia heartland of Palermo. Two months later, while investigating Falcone’s murder, Judge Paolo Borsellino was also killed by a massive car bomb in Via D’Amelio, a residential street in Palermo.
Inspired by these two judges, Di Matteo is now taking up where they left off. He is trying to shine a light on Italy’s so-called season of terror from 1991 to 1994, when the mafia organised a series of bombings and murders to force a negotiation with the government.
“I was brought up with the legend of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. I was a law student when they were working on the Maxi Trial. In those men … I saw a chance to fight back,” Di Matteo says.
He has received a series of death threats. In an attempt to halt the trial, Riina, who is now behind bars, called for Di Matteo’s assassination. He was caught on a prison CCTV camera telling a fellow prisoner: “So if we can, kill him. It’ll be an execution like we used to have in Palermo.”
Many Italians have taken to the streets in solidarity with the judge. But there has been a notable silence from political leaders.
“We citizens are angry. The more we realise that no one is interested in Dr Di Matteo, the angrier we become,” says Linda Grasso, the founder of Civilian Bodyguards, a movement to protect the prosecutor.
“I want to know the reason for this silence. What are they frightened of? Why are they silent? We can’t allow this man, a hero to us, to suffer this silence and indifference from the institutions … We want to protect our judges while they’re alive, not commemorate them after their deaths.”
The threat to Di Matteo hasn’t prevented the magistrate from attending the courtroom. The trial is ongoing and all of the accused deny the charges against them.
“I am conflicted. To give up would be a personal defeat. But it would offer respite for me and my family. Finally, a margin of freedom. Maybe even tranquillity. But only maybe. Even if I gave up, it doesn’t mean I would get fewer death threats,” Di Matteo reflects.
“We knew from the beginning that it would be an uphill struggle. A road littered with attacks, pitfalls, moments of difficulty.
“I believe the truth about these massacres, which have made all decent Italians weep, can be found in the stories we are trying to open up. If we don’t uncover our history we can’t progress. We run the risk that this disease of the past that still plagues us today could infect our future.”
A Very Sicilian Justice , narrated by Helen Mirren, is an intimate portrait of an Italian judge living under constant threat as he tries to take on the mafia. Among those profiled in the film are a former mafia assassin-turned-state witness as well as Borsellino’s brother, and the son of late former mayor of Palermo Vito Ciancimino, who was also known as “Don Vito”.
By Paul Sapin
The Italians were calling it the “trial of the century” and at the centre of proceedings was the chief prosecuting judge, Dr Antonino Di Matteo. On trial were five mafiosi and five ‘men of the state’, including politicians and senior policemen, who were being accused of collusion with the mafia during the “season of terror” that gripped Italy from 1991 to 1994. Di Matteo was now the most threatened man in Italy, and we wanted to tell his story.
The first challenge was to win over the judge so he would agree to let us make the film. He has a 20-man security team guarding him and his family 24/7.
The interventions of the brother of one of the bodyguards killed when Italy’s most famous ant-mafia judges Falcone and Borsellino were assassinated in 1992, and those of Linda Grasso, the founder of the anti-mafia protest group ‘Civilian Bodyguards’ helped expedite an introduction to Di Matteo.
Even so, it took months to arrange our first meeting with the heavily-protected judge. Meanwhile, we began to film with a number of the individuals involved with the story, including various anti-mafia activists and Salvatore, the brother of murdered Judge Borsellino.
Once we had secured Di Matteo’s interest in the film, we had to convince the bodyguards that we were capable of observing their strict and ever-changing security protocols. This made for some intriguing and mysterious rendezvous very late at night and into the early hours of the morning to explore just how all of us were going to make this film without getting shot or blown up.
Our goal to portray aspects of the court case was inhibited by the fact that the presiding judge of the state-mafia trial would not permit cameras on the floor of the courtroom. This meant that we were kept, literally, at a distance from the proceedings and removed from the drama of what was taking place. This reinforced the need to concentrate the focus of our story on the personal circumstances of the judge.
We filmed off and on for a year. On each occasion we had to conduct lengthy and complex negotiations to determine where we could go and how close we could get to Di Matteo’s proscribed life.
There were new security alerts all the time.
Developments in an ongoing bomb plot to kill Di Matteo were uncovered during our filming when the phone taps of a lawyer acting on behalf of a mafia boss at the centre of the plot were made public. Once again, security protocol for the judge had to be changed – and we had to go with the flow.
It was a real filming achievement when, after nine months, the judge trusted us enough to invite us to his country home. It wasn’t merely a matter of trust on his part. The visit required a huge security operation to keep the judge safe in a part of Sicily notorious for being a hotbed of mafia activity. Seventy police and bodyguards were called on to safeguard the route and the property where we filmed.
There were safety issues concerning our contributors and also for our film team. Our confidence was shored up by Monica Capodici, an author and brave anti-mafia activist from the Corleone area of Sicily who acted as our location producer.
She took us to places and opened doors that would have normally been closed to us. Towards the end of our last filming trip, Monica became the target of a threatening text message accusing her of ‘accompanying foreign journalists to rubbish your land.’ The threat has now become part of Di Matteo’s investigations.
In A Very Sicilian Justice , we believe we have captured a personal portrait of an honourable man who faces death on a daily basis for trying to achieve justice. His case and his plight are largely ignored by the Italian press and politicians.
We hope that this film will not only bring attention to what Di Matteo is trying to achieve for Italy, but that publicity from the film may even afford him additional protection. We are grateful to him, his family and the brave ant-mafia activists who helped us.
We have been very fortunate in securing the services of Helen Mirren who agreed to narrate our documentary. Helen is passionate about Italy and she also has a personal connection to the story. The brother of her close friend – the man who helped us to first meet Judge Di Matteo – was killed by the mafia when they blew up Judge Falcone.