'Our Godfather': Film Review

Courtesy of Hot Docs Festival
Real-life organized crime tales don't come more gripping.

Mark Franchetti and Andrew Meier's documentary recounts the story of Tommaso Buscetta, the Mafia turncoat whose testimony led to more than 400 convictions.

The story of Mafia turncoat Tommaso Buscetta is compellingly told in a documentary by Mark Franchetti and Andrew Meier that recently received its world premiere at Toronto's Hot Docs festival. Relating the tale of Buscetta, the highest-ranking Mafia figure ever to break the code of silence known as omertà, with the gripping tension and fast pacing of a first-rate thriller, Our Godfather will prove fascinating for anyone interested in the milieu. And as the films with a title similar to this one demonstrated several decades ago, those numbers are legion. (Buscetta's story is also being dramatized in Marco Bellocchio's upcoming film The Traitor, which premieres in Cannes).

Buscetta was a boss in the Sicilian Mafia who committed numerous crimes, including murder, before he moved to Brazil in 1970 to escape the growing mob violence in his native city. He married a woman 20 years younger than him and continued his criminal ways in his new country, eventually getting arrested for drug trafficking. He was extradited to Italy and served a lengthy prison sentence. Along the way he became disillusioned with the Mafia because of its drug wars' endless bloodshed. (The documentary includes many graphic crime scene photographs and videos that will prove difficult viewing for the faint of heart.)

When Buscetta became a key witness in numerous trials in Italy and the United States, his testimony resulted in the conviction of more than 400 mafioso in both countries. He entered the Witness Protection Program, living with his family in such places as suburban New Jersey and southern Florida. The tight security was certainly necessary, given that 11 of Buscetta's relatives, including his two sons and other family members who had nothing to do with organized crime were brutally murdered or disappeared. Buscetta lived a quiet, mostly anonymous life for his remaining years, dying of cancer at age 71 in 2000.

What makes the documentary so compelling, besides its gripping narrative, is the onscreen testimony of Buscetta's third wife and surviving children, who still live in anonymity because of fear of reprisal. His son Roberto, who's never seen in full face and says he carries a gun at all times, says ominously, "The Mafia never forgets." His widow displays her contempt for the organization that ruined their lives. "Omertà was sacred in the old times; now it's bullshit," she sneers.

There's also a wealth of fascinating archival footage and revealing home movies. The former includes a press conference featuring a young, pre-deranged Rudy Giuliani when he was prosecuting the "Pizza Connection" case based on Buscetta's testimony and a scene from an Italian trial in which Buscetta angrily confronts the former mob boss who had his relatives killed. The home movies featuring Buscetta reveal a dedicated family man who clearly had tremendous difficulty adapting to his new, banal lifestyle in a country where he never felt comfortable. We hear from several of the former FBI agents who were part of his around-the-clock protection, including one who became a close personal friend and still has a copy of a recipe for an Italian dish that Buscetta wrote out for him.

It's those small, resonant details that make Our Godfather more than simply a true-crime tale but also a moving portrait of a man who was both a stone-cold killer and a tragic figure who never got over his guilt for what his criminal lifestyle had done to his family. It's Shakespearean tragedy, mafioso style.

Venue: Hot Docs
Production company: Black Earth Films
Directors-producers: Mark Franchetti, Andrew Meier
Screenwriters: Mark Franchetti, Andrew Meier, David Charap
Director of photography: Lars Kree
Editor: David Charap
Composers: Simon Elms, Colin Smith

93 minutes