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film review

The Traitor tells the story of mafia informant Tommaso Buscetta, played by Pierfrancesco Favino, centre.Lia Pasqualino/Courtesy of Mongrel Media

  • The Traitor (Il Traditore)
  • Directed by Marco Bellocchio
  • Written by Marco Bellocchio, Ludovica Rampoldi, Valia Santella, Francesco Piccolo
  • Starring Pierfrancesco Favino, Maria Fernanda Candido, Fabrizio Ferracane, Luigi Lo Cascio, Fausto Russo Alesi, Nicola Calì
  • Classification 14A
  • 150 mins


2 out of 4 stars

Sitting across from the taciturn judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), smoking a cigarette with handcuffed hands, former mafioso Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino) begins his testimony with a declaration: There’s no such thing as the mafia. That’s an invention by the media. There is such a thing as the Cosa Nostra, however. And they were men of honour.

The mythology behind these ostensible men of honour is the basis of The Traitor, the latest film by veteran Italian director Marco Bellocchio (Vincere; Good Morning, Night), which screened at TIFF 2019 as part of the Masters category. Those looking for a mafia film in the style of Goodfellas or The Irishman will be disappointed. The Traitor is fashioned as an Italian epochal saga, which requires more than a passing familiarity with the real-life story that inspired it to truly understand Bellocchio’s vision.

The film is a dramatic adaptation the life of Buscetta, an informant whose depositions provided the bulk of evidence for Italy’s famous 1986 anti-mob Maxi Trial. It was the largest such prosecution in history and concluded a year later with the convictions of 338 members of the mafia.

Although Buscetta, who also went by Don Masino, claimed to be no more than a foot soldier, he was instrumental in bringing down several big names. He spent much of his later life living in the United States under a witness-protection program and eventually died of cancer.

In truth, Buscetta was an influential figure who rapidly climbed the ranks of the Cosa Nostra hierarchy after joining it in 1945. In 1963, he evaded the Italian authorities and fled to Brazil via the United States. He was captured by the Brazilian police and imprisoned in Italy. After escaping prison in 1980, he fled the mafia wars raging in Italy and returned to Brazil to a life of luxury with his third wife Cristina (Maria Fernanda Candido), who was Brazilian.

However, he was arrested again by Brazilian police, tortured and extradited to Italy. Disenchanted by the death of his two sons at the hands of the very people who had been entrusted with their care and disgusted with the way the Cosa Nostra had betrayed its code of honour and taken to murdering women and children, and after a persuasive phone call with Cristina, Buscetta agrees to answer Falcone’s questions.

Favino gives a fascinating turn in the central role.Courtesy of Mongrel Media

The Traitor begins with the moment Buscetta is planning his 1980 departure to Brazil. The mafia clans have gathered to divvy up the heroin market among themselves, but Buscetta isn’t pleased with the horrors the drug has ravaged upon his own son.

Bellocchio sets the tone in the opening scene. Dark and gloomy, a deep sense of foreboding emphasized by the glow of torchlight on the beach, the shadows carried inside the mansion where everyone watches one another with suspicious eyes.

We never get to see Buscetta’s rise through through the ranks, only catching glimpses of his storied past in a series of flashbacks peppered throughout the movie – and especially during his tête-à-têtes with Falcone. But those only serve to build his mythology – the man who liked sex more than power, who wouldn’t kill a rival so long as he was in the company of his son, who didn’t break his silence even when he was made to watch his wife dangle from a helicopter, screaming in terror.

Bellocchio is clearly enamoured by the epic scope of his subject matter. There have been many American films on the mafia, he said in an interview, but he wanted to make an Italian film. It would be easy to say The Traitor is over-the-top, its grandiose narrative approach belying a fairly simple chronicle of the rivalry between two mafia clans that ultimately brings about their downfall. There’s nothing subtle about the film, from the sumptuous cinematography and religious symbolism to the operatic score that very literally underscores the drama. All these elements come together in a rather spectacular – in the true sense of the word – moment in the first courtroom trial.

The trial is pandemonium. Prisoners stand in cages, shouting obscenities and making rude gestures, in a Colosseum-like setting behind rows of robed lawyers. At one point, a group of wailing wives disrupts the court’s proceedings. It would all boil down to farce, were it not for Favino’s fascinating turn as Buscetta or Luigi Lo Cascio’s portrayal of Buscetta’s collaborator Totuccio Contorno as a bundle of nerves. In other scenes, Maria Fernanda Candido is arresting as Buscetta’s wife.

The Traitor is an exploration of betrayal, according to Bellocchio. He seems to be asking, can a man truly change the course of his life, or is it just a pretense? Unfortunately, this account of Buscetta’s story doesn’t really give us any answers.

The Traitor opens February 7 in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.