The mafia has been a source of some of the best stories in film history for filmmakers. The drama, action, and moral dilemmas the characters face always keep viewers on the edge of their seats wanting more. The best mobster movies are full of violence and memorable mafia bosses. They cross cultural and international boundaries, and explore and test theories of cinema, playing with the audience's preconceived notions of narrative and perspective.
Marco Bellocchio's 'The Traitor' centres around the legendary informant Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino, 'My Cousin Rachel'), who turned on his former accomplices. Buscetta probably had a bigger impact than any snitch in history. The information he gave to legendary prosecutor Giovanni Falcone (played here by Fausto Russo Alesi) set off a chain of events that has left Sicily's Cosa Nostra with a fraction of its former power and influence. Buscetta's disclosures prompted the "maxi-trial" of 1986-92 and the conviction of 338 mafiosi. In reprisal, Cosa Nostra assassinated Falcone, unleashing an unprecedented crackdown on the Sicilian Mafia that resulted in the arrest of the "boss of bosses", Salvatore "Totò" Riina, and a string of his lieutenants, including Riina's closest associate, Bernardo Provenzano.
In 1980, the film's title cards tell us, Palermo is "the world capital of heroin," and being fought over by two factions: the old guard of Palermo, and the new clan in nearby Corleone. Bellocchio sets the tone in the opening scene - dark and gloomy, a deep sense of foreboding emphasised by the glow of torchlight on the beach, the shadows carried inside the mansion where everyone watches one another with suspicious eyes. In order to step back from the tension brewing on the Palermo streets, Buscetta and his third wife Cristina (Maria Fernanda Cândido) move to live out their days in Rio de Janeiro. The civil war in Sicily rages, with some of Buscetta's sons killed. Eventually, Buscetta is captured by Brazilian police, tortured and extradited back to Italy. Once there, the film abruptly transitions into a melodramatic courtroom drama where he turns on the mob he once knew as kin.
In these courtroom scenes, the case is made that Buscetta is not betraying the mob because 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. It's a semantic argument which is cemented in Buscetta's perspective. Favino's performance keeps the cerebral tone and manages to sustain the audience's intrigue with a compelling study of the anti-hero perspective.
The many scenes of shady wheelings-and-dealings and farcical courtroom arguments are broken up by some beautifully-filmed scenes of violence.
The many scenes of shady wheelings-and-dealings and farcical courtroom arguments are broken up by some beautifully-filmed scenes of violence. These include an execution in a warehouse full of mirrors, an explosion on a bridge that is filmed from the back seat of a car as it is flung into the air, and Buscetta being questioned by Brazilian police as he is made to watch his wife dangle from a helicopter, screaming in terror.
It's a consistently alluring watch. Vladan Radovic's cinematography captures powerful people and the captivating presence that comes with money. He presents them in deep shadows mingled with swaths of sharp light that evoke the shimmering plastic of dolls, similarly untouchable.
Bellocchio and his three co-screenwriters overwhelm the viewer with mounds of names, dates and places. 'The Traitor' requires more than a passing familiarity with the real-life story that inspired it. 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 - especially during his tête-à-têtes with Falcone.
Despite the intimidating sprawl of its narrative, 'The Traitor' presents an interesting knot of a character for the audience to unravel as they watch the confessions of a traitor revealing the mafia's darkest secrets.