When Laura Roveri, a 25-year-old Italian woman living in Verona, was stabbed 15 times by her ex-boyfriend in a nightclub, she barely survived to tell her story. But despite a damning trail of evidence of her attacker’s murderous intent, he claimed his vicious assault never intended to kill her – and received only a seven-year prison sentence as a result.
The incident was just one in a wave of brutal attacks and femicides that in recent years have rocked Italy and exposed the devastating consequences of a culture of misogyny and machismo. Roveri is among the survivors, activists, and victims’ family members who share their stories in “Femicidio,” a documentary written and directed by Nina Maria Paschalidou.
Produced by Paschalidou for Forest Troop and Lorenzo Cioffi for Ladoc, in co-production with Al Jazeera and Sky Italia with the support of the Italian Film Fund and Veneto Fund, the film world premieres this week at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.
At the time that Paschalidou first traveled to Italy in 2018, it had the highest number of femicides in the E.U. An Italian woman is killed every three days in the Mediterranean country, with nearly 70% of the victims murdered by the men they live with. Most of the rest are killed by former boyfriends, ex-husbands and domestic partners.
Italy, however, is not alone, with countries across the globe seeing cases of domestic violence and femicide skyrocket during the coronavirus pandemic. In Paschalidou’s native Greece, a record 19 women were victims of femicide in 2021 – a national crisis that has provoked widespread protests and calls for legal reform.
Paschalidou saw Italy as a “case study” for the particularly dramatic rise in domestic violence and femicide that has unfolded across the Mediterranean. “It is a strongly patriarchal society that deals with a lot of issues around women,” she says. “It’s a country that did have a feminism wave, a very strong one years ago, but it has to renegotiate the rights of women.”
The director is herself a survivor of an abusive relationship, a fact that she acknowledges is sadly far from unique. “As women, I think we all have this experience, unfortunately,” she says. “In small ways. It doesn’t have to be that somebody beats you up really badly. It can be in words, it can be in different things.”
Sparked by the #MeToo movement, there have been increasing calls across the globe to listen to and believe survivors’ stories, an empowering first step for women whose cries for help have often been silenced or ignored. In countries such as Italy that have suffered from a profound economic crisis, a greater number of women are also entering the workplace and taking on the traditionally male role as the breadwinner, giving them a degree of economic freedom and empowerment most Italian women hadn’t enjoyed in the past.
That, in turn, has begun to reshape the dynamics of power in the country. “Now you have the power today to stop [abuse]. Even if it’s at work, even if it’s at home, even if it’s being in a marriage or relationship that’s threatening you,” Paschalidou says. “This is why in Italy the struggle is stronger now. Because women have the means to break free.”
At the same time, that empowerment has come with a cost: many experts point to the economic crises that have roiled Italy and other countries, and the resulting loss of economic and social status for men traditionally seen as providers, as fueling the recent surge in femicides.
For Paschalidou, greater mechanisms need to be put in place to protect vulnerable women. “When a woman calls the police, and the police intervene, then the restraining order should be issued,” she says. “When a woman ends up in the hospital with broken ribs once, twice, three times, somebody has to report it.”
In Greece, following the lead of Italy and other countries in officially recognizing femicide as a crime would also lead to changes in how such cases are reported, treated and tried in a court of law. “I think it is important to look at them as femicides because they have certain characteristics that can be prevented,” Paschalidou says. “Because these murders are the result of intense violence, domestic violence.”
The director says Roveri was somewhat reluctant to play such a prominent role in “Femicidio,” but in the weeks since the film’s Valentine’s Day broadcast on Sky Italia, she’s become an increasingly public figure in Italy. “She’s a very powerful woman. She really managed to rebuild her life,” says Paschalidou. “I think she became a symbol of power and strength.” Family members of other femicide victims were also eager to come forward to share the stories of their loss. “They really wanted to talk. It was the time. They wanted to tell the story, to be heard, to make a difference.”
The filmmaker, who dedicated “Femicidio” to her 7-year-old son, sees the education of his generation as one of the many – and most urgent – duties for Paschalidou and the “Mediterranean mothers” like her. “We have to educate our sons. We have to show them the way,” she says. “When we talk to them about girls, and what the world is about, we have to teach them that violence is not the way.”
Perhaps more importantly, she says, societies across the world are coming to terms with a new reality in which traditional gender roles are increasingly being questioned, upended and redefined. With education, reform and the passage of time, long-held notions of masculinity – particularly in the Mediterranean world of “Femicidio” – could someday become relics of a dimly remembered past.
“This line that was so clear before is becoming thin and blurry. The lines of men and women and families, and what a family is, are being changed for the first time drastically – not just in terms of society, but also in legal ways,” says Paschalidou. “I think now, with these changes – Who is a woman? Who is a man? What is a family? – I think we have an opportunity to break these very strong ideas of who a man should be, or who a woman should be.”