Film feels a bit too anonymous
What surprises most about Marco
Bellocchio's Mafia drama 'The Traitor' is just how straightforward it is. Given
its subject – Tommaso Buscetta, the highest-ranking Mafia don to sing to the
authorities – there were expectations that the director would deliver a
theatrical drama along the lines of 'Vincere', but notwithstanding a few
operatic flourishes, his latest seems to realize the built-in theatrical
elements are already so histrionic that it's best to play them as direct as
possible. Consequently, 'The Traitor' feels a bit too anonymous. It's clearly
made by a master filmmaker questioning the nature of repentance, and as such is
far from superficial; and yet while it never loses our attention, it also
doesn't deliver much of a punch.
Non-Italian audiences may feel a
bit overwhelmed at first by the avalanche of names, helpfully spelled out on
screen, but the characters who matter come to the fore and it's not difficult
to follow. That said, few outside Italy carry with them built-in reference
points that remain burned in the national psyche, such as the shocking 1992
murder of Judge Salvatore Falcone, whose groundbreaking successful pursuit of
the Mafia followed by his assassination shattered the enabling twin demons of
inevitability and apathy that had gripped the country for so long.
Buscetta (popular actor
Pierfrancesco Favino, never better) was the star witness, exposing Sicily's
criminal hierarchy in a series of dramatic testimonies accurately recreated in
all their circus-like atmosphere.
While these scenes are the
centerpiece of 'The Traitor', Bellocchio's interest lies in why the former gangster
turned on his associates. Buscetta himself made no secret of his reasons: He
didn't betray the Cosa Nostra, the Cosa Nostra was betrayed by its new leaders.
When the teenage Buscetta swore an oath of fealty to the criminal organization,
he promised to uphold its sense of family values, but by the time he named
names, Mafia boss Toto Riina (Nicola Cali) and his Corleone clan had taken to
murdering women and children, which for Buscetta was a step too far. He wasn't
the traitor; it was Riina and his henchmen.
Bellocchio largely passes over
Buscetta's heyday as a Mafia princeling, though we hear mention of his
convictions for heroin trafficking, and despite multiple incarcerations, he's
clearly amassed an illicit fortune large enough to live a grand lifestyle. With
his Brazilian third wife Cristina (Maria Fernanda Candido) and their kids, he's
moved to Rio de Janeiro, thinking he could leave behind this new Cosa Nostra he
finds distasteful, but as everyone knows, no one really exits from the Mafia.
News of a crescendo of killings in Sicily reaches him in Rio, and just after he
learns his sons Benedetto (Gabriele Cicirello) and Antonio (Paride Cicirello)
are missing, the Brazilian police raid his home.
This is 1983, at the height of
the brutal military dictatorship, and Buscetta isn't handled gently by cops
trying to get a confession. A particularly disturbing scene shows Cristina
being dangled from a helicopter while Buscetta, in a helicopter alongside, is
forced to watch. The horrifying stunt doesn't get the authorities what they
want so they agree to extradite him to Italy, but before they can, he attempts
suicide. In the script, Buscetta's Garden of Gethsamene moment comes in the
12-hour plane ride back home, when he weighs his life and decides for the sake
of his family to become an informer.
In his first meeting with Falcone
(Fausto Russo Alesi), the judge dismisses Buscetta's claim of an honorable
Mafia, pre-Riina, and a few scenes showing the informer in less than honorable
situations underlines that idea, though Bellocchio includes surprisingly little
of Buscetta's criminal activities, most likely in order to make the closing
scene more powerful. It's a problematic decision, risking making Buscetta look
like an attractive ladies' man who did a few bad things in his life but
repented when he realized how much he loved his wife and kids. That's
manifestly not the message the director wants to give, yet in constructing the
film in a way that leads up to that final sequence, he lulls the audience into
almost allowing this man the grace of forgiveness.
The Maxi Trials began in 1986,
re-created in all their surreal pandemonium with unruly defendants and even a
bewailing chorus of Mafia wives interrupting proceedings. (RTRS)
The main figure accused is top
Riina associate Pippo Calo (Fabrizio Ferracane), known as 'the Mafia's
Cashier', who riles Buscetta during a cross-examination but ultimately goes
down thanks also to the testimony of a fellow informer, the hitman Totuccio Contorno
(Luigi Lo Cascio, speaking in Sicilian dialect). When it's all over, Buscetta
joins his family in the US, under cover of the Witness Protection Program, but
after Falcone is murdered in 1992 and Riina himself is finally put on trial in
1993, he returns to Palermo to bring his enemy down. (RTRS)