From the Archives: The Traitor mostly succeeds as a thriller-courtroom drama mashup

From the Archives: The Traitor mostly succeeds as a thriller-courtroom drama mashup

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

Tomasso Buscetta is the former Cosa Nostra mob boss turned informant whose testimony brought down a large portion of the Italian mafia. The term is “pentito” amongst the rank and file of the mob, and anyone branded as such is pretty much the lowest rung on the ladder. As with any organized crime enterprise, to be a snitch is the worst offense a member can commit, because once somebody starts talking to the authorities, the secrecy required to maintain such a large operation is compromised, and the house cards falls quickly.

The Traitor is a thoroughly detailed look into the life, arrest, and subsequent trial of Tomasso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino). Written and directed by Marco Bellocchio, this epic-length mob picture wears its influences on its well-tailored sleeve. The high-class opening that depicts an unlikely civil meeting between opposing families borrows more than a little from The Godfather, while the moments of stark,  stylized violence are heavily evocative of Scorsese’s work in the genre. Peppered throughout are bits of sleaze that will make any Scarface fan look to their neon-lit poster of Tony Montana that they got at the boardwalk last summer with pride.

The film begins with such energy that the 145-minute runtime doesn’t appear to be a problem at all. Buscetta is hiding out in Brazil from what he perceives to be a mob war brewing back in Italy. He mostly lives the good life, relaxing on his large, beachside estate, smoking cigars, drinking, and hoping that the distance between he and his home country will keep he and his family safe. But since this is a movie, he’s wrong. Very very wrong. You see, back home a very powerful enemy has ordered the elimination of anyone even tangentially related to Buscetta’s mob family, up to and including loved ones who share no connection with the business at large. This trail of blood finds its way to Buscetta’s immediate family right about the same time as authorities catch up with Buscetta himself.

While facing extradition back to Italy, Buscetta, spurred by the deaths of his sons, decides to go against the mafia’s code of silence by granting in-depth interviews about the entire organized crime hierarchy to an anti-mafia judge.

It’s here where the aggressive pace and flashy, colorful style subside a bit and a The Traitor becomes a courtroom drama. It takes some time to get used to such a stark shift, which hurts enjoyment a bit, but once you fall into step with the film’s presumed scope (this is a multi-year story), it’s easy to find the narrative rhythm again. Still, it never quite finds its way back to the energy of the first act. Perhaps this is by design, as the film takes great pains to show us Buscetta’s physical deterioration resultant of age and the stress of becoming the Mafia’s most recognizable persona non grata — a descent that the film matches with its tone — but this is nonetheless where the length of the film is most felt.

Bellocchio’s script smartly avoids offering too much by way of forgiveness to Buscetta. This isn’t a film interested in painting him as either good or bad. It’s much more complicated than that, as evidenced by the shaky depiction of his motivations. Is Buscetta testifying because, as he says, the Cosa Nostra is no longer the honorable entity it once was, or is he just employing mental gymnastics to feel honorable while his back is against a legal wall? At different points of the story either option could be true, and if I’m being honest, it’s probably a little bit of both. How interesting to have a protagonist whose motivations range from cold and selfish to generous and humble. It’s not easy to relate to on paper, but in practice it’s quite compelling. In my experience, it’s easy to convince myself that I’m acting generously when really I’ve just distorted my lens of self-interest. Conversely, it’s also easy for me to forget the altruistic intentions behind an action that’s currently underway. By writing Buscetta ambiguously, Bellocchio creates an audience surrogate where one would least expect it (given that the viewer is not a member of the mob).

Similarly to any mob picture, there’s a streak of humor that runs throughout the film. It’s a dark streak, but humorous nonetheless. There’s just something about the blue collar sensibility amongst the ranks of a powerful (and powerfully violent) organization that makes for good chuckles. By the time the judge is losing control of his courtroom as the defendants bicker from their seats, a level of calamitous hilarity is achieved, and the pacing issues begin to dissolve. It should also be noted that, from an American point of view, the Italian criminal court procedures are absolutely fascinating. It’s a decidedly different setup, but it still lends itself to similar legal theater.

The supporting cast is large and expansive, and much like similar fare, it’s bubbling over with cartoonish and sinister personalities. A standout comes in the form of famous anti-mob judge Giovanni Falcone, played here with professional intensity by Fausto Russo Alesi. Maria Fernanda Cândido turns in a fiery performance as Buscetta’s third wife, Maria. As the ostensible moral anchor of the film, her experience is the closest thing we have to a window into what’s really driving our protagonist.

While uneven in its pacing, for the most part the film is an engaging watch. Mixing the excitement of a thriller with the slow burn of a courtroom drama is the only way to make a picture this thoroughly detailed work like it does, and for the most part it works very well. If anything, it’s the disinclination to skip over details that is the film’s biggest liability. At the same time, the thoroughness is appreciated. It’s a fascinating story, and it’s one which wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if one were to just read the Wikipedia.

I’ll remain spoiler free, but there’s a certain very sudden death that caused, in me, an audible, involuntary yelp. It ranks amongst the best “oh shit, well I guess that guy’s dead” moments and I will be chasing the feeling until I find it again.

The Traitor opens today at the Ritz Five and AMC Voorhees.

Leave a Reply