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 (several available on YouTube) 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 Totò Riina (Nicola Calì) 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. The main figure accused is top Riina associate Pippo Calò (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 U.S., 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.
Despite another round of carefully reenacted court proceedings, his motivations remain abstruse: Did Buscetta snitch to protect his family, or out of a thirst for revenge? It’s this ambiguity that makes him a compelling figure, played in all his multi-registered inscrutability by Favino, who captures the swagger as well as the vulnerability, seen to particularly strong effect when examined by Franco Coppi (Alberto Storti), the lawyer for former prime minister Giulio Andreotti. As his wife Cristina, Candido makes the most of a small role, supportive yet strong-minded, and Lo Cascio, as ever, finds charm and humor in even heinous characters. However, perhaps a scene showing him whacking someone would have been a good idea, just as a sobering corrective.
In his first collaboration with the director, DP Vladan Radovic captures the master’s vision, from sweeping vistas of Rio to powerful, punchy scenes of Mafia assassinations rapidly edited by regular collaborator Francesca Calvelli. Bellocchio’s usual superb use of music is once again a source of pleasure, such as having the helicopter scene accompanied by the classic Mexican song “Historia de un amor,” or setting “Va, pensiero” from “Nabucco” against the sentencing at the Maxi Trial.