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Marco Bellocchio on Tackling Mafia Movie Tropes in His ‘The Traitor’

Cannes veteran Marco Bellocchio’s vast body of work spans from “Fists in the Pocket” (1965) to “Sweet Dreams,” which launched at Director’s Fortnight in 2016. The auteur known for psychodramas and for bringing the complexities of Italian history, and hypocrisy, to the big screen is back, this time in competition, with “The Traitor,” a biopic of Tommaso Buscetta, the first high-ranking member of Cosa Nostra to break the Sicilian Mafia’s oath of silence. He spoke to Variety about making his first film with “no direct link or identification with my personality.”

What drew you to the story of Tommaso Buscetta?

What I like about this character is that he’s neither a victim nor a hero. He’s a very determined man, always on the run. He’s a survivor. Buscetta had to continuously navigate really dangerous situations. He fled to Brazil because he knew there was a war within Cosa Nostra and he belonged to the losing faction. But he never imagined that the winners would go as far as setting out to exterminate his family. He’s continuously trying to build back his life. He loves his family and in order to stay alive gradually decides to collaborate with justice and therefore to betray the Mafia.

Can you talk to me about what you learned that’s been key to the film?

The most precious discovery I made for this film is Sicily. Immersing myself in the Sicilian underworld, including the high-security Palermo courtroom where the trials [that put more than 300 mafiosi behind bars] where held. The courtroom is among places that haven’t changed. Also learning Sicilian dialect. One of my biggest fears was to fall into the trap of convention, of caricature. Sicilian dialect is often affected in films. So it was crucial for me to interview plenty of Sicilians and use Sicilian actors, which helped me enter Buscetta’s world. The Sicilian dialect is real here, which is why even the Italian version is partly subtitled.

This is your biggest-budget film. It also seems stylistically quite different from the rest of your work

It is different, in that there is no direct link or identification with my personality. There was nothing from my private life to draw from. It was a particular challenge in that I had to put my personal stamp on the narrative, but leaving out all that psycho-pathological baggage, if you will, that, being part of my biography, has seeped into my films.

Would you consider it a genre movie in any way, and also more accessible for a broader audience?

Think about how many homicides we’ve seen in movies. I didn’t try to do something bizarre, but I tried to make the action something that stemmed from the characters’ interior workings… We are seeing lots of genre these days in TV series and some of them are very original… I certainly didn’t set out to make a more mainstream movie. But I do hope that having a story with international appeal can in itself make it of interest to a wider audience. I tried to depict situations that in themselves have potential for a wider appeal and I’d say that in this case a more direct type of cinematic language is an integral part of the subject matter.

Can you talk to me about your next project, the TV series “Exterior, Night” about the 1978 kidnapping and assassination of former Italian Prime Minister Also Moro by Red Brigades terrorists? 

The idea it to start the series with Moro’s kidnapping, after which the following 4 episodes would explore the event from the point of view of external characters: one could be Italy’s president at the time, Francesco Cossiga; another could be Pope Paul IV; another, some terrorists who did not participate in the kidnapping; and another Moro’s wife; with the final episode being on the abduction’s tragic epilogue.

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