Hero is an overused word nowadays. But Sicilian Judge Antonino Di Matteo is unequivocally a hero.
Toby Follett and Paul Sapin’s stunning documentary, “A Very Sicilian Justice” (narrated by Helen Mirren and to be aired on Al Jazeera English on 7 July at 9pm), tells the story of how Judge Di Matteo has become the most imperilled man in Italy.
Di Matteo was born and raised in the beautiful but Mafia-ridden Palermo Region of Sicily. As a young law student, he was inspired by the famous judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino’s extraordinary attempt to eliminate the Mafia from his beloved homeland.
Showing staggering bravery, Falcone and Borsellino prosecuted hundreds of Mafiosi in the “Maxi-Trials” of the early 1990s, including senior bosses such as Tóto Riina. This led to the two judges being murdered along with eight of their bodyguards in successive car bomb attacks during Italy’s “season of terror” from 1991 to 1994. The wave of terror ordered by Riina and his associates included other fatal bomb attacks in major cities across Italy.
Di Matteo is now a devoted family man and senior judge himself. The film follows his quest to complete the work begun by his heroes.
Di Matteo’s current case is focused on the “season of terror”. But he goes even further than his illustrious predecessors by exposing the links between the Mafia and the Italian authorities. The defendants he accuses of participating in a Mafia-State conspiracy include five mob bosses and five members of the political establishment, including senior police chiefs and politicians.
Riina, serving a life sentence, has been caught on a hidden prison camera issuing a direct order to murder Di Matteo in “an execution like we used to have” that will ensure he “ends up worse than Falcone”. It is no empty threat either. A well-advanced plot to carry out the order has already been uncovered. But the explosives and some of the conspirators have yet to be found.
Perhaps even more sinister are the series of death threats and anonymous warnings Di Matteo has received from people apparently working within the Italian state itself. A series of witnesses, including former Mafia operatives who were involved at the time, suggest that the Falcone and Borsellino assassinations were approved by state insiders. Di Matteo’s case and “A Very Sicilian Justice” clearly indicate that these insiders have much to fear from exposure of their relationship with the Mafia.
In this context, the lack of support from those in authority for Di Matteo’s attempts to clean up their country is ominous. Very few of the highest officials in the land have expressed any backing for him, despite repeatedly being invited to do so.
More hearteningly, Di Matteo is being supported by large numbers of the general public, many of whom have taken to the streets in support of his work. Linda Grasso, founder of the “Civilian Bodyguards” group campaigning in favour of Di Matteo, says pointedly that “we want to protect our judges while they are alive, not commemorate them after they are dead”.
Whilst motivating Di Matteo, this public encouragement to continue his work also places more pressure on him. It reminds him how “too many put too great a responsibility on the shoulders of a few” for taking on the Mafia and fuels his bitterness about the absence of high-level political support for his work.
And it is this internal, personal conflict that confirms Di Matteo’s courage. Rather than charging heedlessly into this fight, he is a sane and rational man. He knows he is in danger and may, at best, never be able to lead a normal life again, having effectively become a prisoner of his bodyguards. Worse still, his family have been placed in these circumstances as a result of his work. This all causes him to feel fear at an intensity few of us will ever experience. But, as real heroes do, he courageously faces up to it anyway and does everything in his power to make his part of the world a better place.
“A Very Sicilian Justice” is a brilliantly made, insightful documentary that provides a fully rounded picture of its subject. It makes you deeply apprehensive for Judge Di Matteo and his family. But, most of all, it leaves you moved by his commitment and fervently hoping for his success.