Classics like “The Godfather” and “GoodFellas” have written the Mafia into cinematic legend. So iconic are these images of mobsters that their reference point—a tradition of violence with real-world consequences—tends to be forgotten. This is something that veteran Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio seeks to redress with “The Traitor,” competing for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Bellocchio tells the true story about Mafia informant Tommaso Buscetta, responsible for over 350 arrests. A handsome production and ambitious in scale, the impact of “The Traitor” is muted by the familiarity of its well-worn tropes.
Bellochio’s latest takes on an epic, globe-trotting scale as it follows the journey of Tommaso (a magnetic Pierfrancesco Favino) from 1980 to 2000. Well-positioned in the Mafia—properly the Cosa Nostra—the crime leader and his family are among those targeted for death by the offshoot Corleone faction in a dispute over the heroin trade. When Tommaso is apprehended by Brazilian police and extradited to Italy, he chooses to testify against his enemies in order to secure the safety of his wife and children, making him a marked man for the rest of his life.
Bellocchio keeps a familiar story engaging with the strong storytelling sensibilities that have served him well since his 1965 debut “Fists in the Pocket.” Punchy stylistic choices lend verve to the picture. Don’t expect any horse-heads left in beds, but there is one “Holy shit!” execution sure to catch viewers off guard. Not wallowing in its gore, “The Traitor” spreads out its most gruesome moments to ensure maximum impact. In the gripping first act, a kill counter is placed in the bottom lefthand corner of the frame, steadily climbing until a target is whacked in startlingly violent fashion onscreen.
There are low-key scenes, too; the women, like spouse Cristina (Maria Fernanda Cândido) are regrettably sidelined in this dude movie, but the homosocial bond between Tommaso and lead judge Falcone (Bellocchio regular Fausto Russo Alesi) makes for an interesting and unexpected dynamic.
“The Traitor” would fit comfortably among the spate of Italian crimes series being churned out by Netflix, in part due to its look. Unlike many old hands stuck in their celluloid ways, Bellocchio embraces the look of digital filmmaking, particular in the nighttime exteriors with their bracing immediacy. Other sequences, particularly the Palermo-set Saint Rosalia celebration that kicks off the movie, present the distinctly Italian pageantry associated with masters like Luchino Visconti (“The Leopard”).
Perhaps it’s due to an unfamiliarity with the Italian legal process, but the courtroom scenes make for fabulous spectacle, a true theater of the absurd. Facing the intimidating judges, Tommaso provides his testimony in a clear bulletproof box with his back to the Corleonesi mobsters in a row of cages in the rear of the room. Meanwhile, the mob wives are shouting obscenities from the gods—the traitor is under attack on all axes.
Bellocchio makes the most of the carnivalesque space, drawing a connection between the penned gangsters and the prowling of captive lions and hyenas. In what one judge calls “a lunatic show,” the accused argue their innocence via melodramatic outbursts and vulgar hand gestures. While not always pronounced, the north-south tensions in Italy manifest most prominently in the trial sequence; a fellow whistleblower is chided for speaking his Sicilian dialect in the formal setting of the court.
“The Traitor” can’t escape the inherent glamorization of the mobster lifestyle that afflicts most efforts in the genre. “I am not an informant,” the traitor of the title declares. Bellocchio draws attention to this genre trapping through Tomasso’s hubris and swagger. He regularly makes reference to being a “man of honor”—even when testifying against the Corleonesi. In a comical, narcissistic detail, Tommaso is shown dying his grey hairs jet black in police custody. During the initial trial, a group of men walks the streets holding signs that say “Long live the Mafia that gives us work.”
To illustrate a point, Tommaso recounts a story from his early Mafia days of when he was tasked with taking out a gangster who uses his newborn son as a figurative and literal shield. Henceforth, the man is fated to death, living in a constant state of paranoia—just as Tommaso will come to. This parable’s payoff, a metaphor for the principal character’s own situation, is like a Sicilian folktale. Is this not the role that mob movies like “The Traitor” have taken on, serving as modern cautionary fables about the consequences of unchecked power? [B-/C+]