The Traitor (Il traditore)

Italy (2019) Dir. Marco Bellocchio

If you were part of a huge criminal organisation like the Mafia then the last thing you would do is become a police informer and spill the beans about the inner workings of this dangerous group. To ensure his place in Italian history – or infamy – this is exactly what happened to ex-Mafioso and pentito Tommaso Buscetta.

The code of honour adhered to by members of the Cosa Nostra – the Sicilian Mafia – is as sacred an oath as one could swear, but Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino) aka Don Masino was driven to betray his former mob brethren. In 1980, Buscetta decides to leave Italy for Brazil with his third wife Maria (Maria Fernanda Cândido) and their youngest children after he sensed trouble brewing with the ruthless Totò Riina (Nicola Calì).

Riina has Buscetta’s eldest sons and his closest allies killed. In 1983, Brazilian police raid Buscetta’s mansion for alleged drug smuggling. Realising he will be extradited to Italy where Riina, now running things with the Corleone family, is waiting for him, Buschetta attempts suicide but when that fails, he agrees to tell all to the authorities in exchange for his protection against Riina.

Naturally a huge story in Italy since it lead to the largest Mafia trial ever in the country, Buscetta’s saga might not mean much to many of us outside of those borders, which is what The Traitor should rectify. In some ways it does, providing a fascinating insight into the murky world of the Mafia, yet the script works on the presumption the audience is already somewhat familiar with the story, to a slight detriment as it transpires.

Marco Bellocchio is a director of some renown in his homeland and among cineastes as part of the Italian New Wave in the 60s. Despite reaching octogenarian age, The Traitor doesn’t feel like a film from a man who should be slowing down, nor is it reflective in any way as if Bellocchio’s story brings out some personal nostalgia in him. Even if this is the case, there is no judgement in the narrative, though it is easy to see this film as painting Buscetta as a hero.

Until the final scene, in which we are reminded Buscetta was part of the Mafia with a criminal record as long as this 145 minute film which allowed him to amass a enough of a fortune to live a life of luxury in Italy and Brazil. This was mostly for cigarette and later drug smuggling but his involvement in a murder of rival Mafioso was enough to warrant fleeing to Brazil and getting plastic surgery.

Describing himself as just a soldier in the Cosa Nostra hierarchy, Buscetta also managed to earn the trust of and have influence over many of his peers and superiors, in other words, he literally knows where the bodies are buried. Seeing Riina rise to the top and make waves in the process was enough for Buscetta to jump ship, upsetting people who ended up siding with Riina.

Bellocchio only shares this information in drips with a hefty info dump near the end that we outsiders might have benefitted from knowing at the start. This is just part of the obstinate manner of the story telling with the first hour being a confusing mess. The film opens with a party in which we are introduced to a slew of characters via on screen graphics in quick succession, but it is pointless to remember these names as most of them are dead five minutes later.

Presumably, Bellocchio felt the court cases were the draw of this film, hence the scrappy build up, the highlight of which is the Brazilian police’s method of persuading Buscetta to work with them – by dangling his wife out of a helicopter! Yet, we do learn that the reason Buscetta chose to rat on his former family is his disappointment in how things are run under Riina, claiming he couldn’t support his methods and that Riina has betrayed the code of the Cosa Nostra, not Buscetta.

Quite an interesting take but it does put Buscetta in a positive light and when you see the baying mob of his erstwhile Mafioso he boldly faces in court, it is not hard to be on his side. They don’t help their case by trying immature tricks like stripping naked or like one chap, sewing his mouth shut! But they arrogantly refute Buscetta’s testimony as truth, like Riina’s hitman Pippo Calò (Fabrizio Ferracane), who challenges him to a face-to-face cross-examination.

As it transpires, the court cases are the strongest parts of the film, not just for showing us how chaotic and different Italian courts are, but also for giving the cast involved a great opportunity to really get into their roles and deliver knockout performances. They are all great anyway, but Pierfrancesco Favino in particular just oozes class and charisma during these scenes, making this career criminal an admirable anti-hero.

For what should be a relatively static and tense set up, Bellocchio shoots these moments like an action sequence, thriving on the energy of the fraught atmosphere and pulsating adrenaline rush that comes with each biting exchange. This doesn’t mean the rest of the film is flat, with brief bursts of violence and a staggeringly inventive shot of a car bomb explosion as shown from inside the car for the visceral shocks.

However, there is a lot of padding here that could have been excised, and perhaps a ten-minute prologue to explain the situation and the characters before covering the court cases might have worked better. It is still very well made and compelling when it gets going, but not every detail of Buscetta’s personal life is as engrossing.

The Traitor doesn’t necessarily feel like a biopic of Buscetta but is presented as one which might be its undoing, since much of the story could have been told during the trials. Just don’t tell them I said that…