'The Traitor' ('Il traditore'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Ad Vitam
A real godfather speaks out.

Marco Bellocchio’s political drama revisits Italy’s big mafia trials through the angry eyes of Pierfrancesco Favino’s Tommaso Buscetta, a man of honor turned state’s evidence.

From TV to Hollywood, the world has no shortage of mafia dramas, but Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor (Il traditore) carves out its own niche. Its behind-the-scenes view of Sicily’s real-life men of honor who were brought to justice in the 1980s and 1990s aims to be realistic rather than eye-popping and for that reason, can sometimes feel just a bit flat and unentertaining. But despite its lack of mafia money scenes — there’s no horse’s head in the bed, no family gunned down on the steps of a church — this is one of the most revealing portraits of the Cosa Nostra on film. It takes its place beside Good Morning, Night, the director’s 2003 take on terrorism and the assassination of Christian Democrat politician Aldo Moro, as a classic study of a sick society.

The dark dealings of the Sicilian mafia, who moved on from contraband cigarettes to the billion-dollar heroin industry, have changed in the course of the years and, as The Traitor shows, there is little "honor" left in the gangsterish men of honor. The pic inevitably overlaps earlier films about the investigating magistrate Giovanni Falcone, who was brutally assassinated, or the ruthless boss Toto Riina. But its depth and range, along with a handsome production with a vast cast and locations in Sicily, Rome, Brazil and the U.S., should be strong draws for audiences outside Italy.

Its most valuable asset is actor Pierfrancesco Favino (Rush, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian). He packs serious intensity into his portrayal of Tommaso Buscetta, a key mafioso figure whose decided to testify before judge Falcone and appear in a Maxi Trial against the mafia that lasted from 1986 to 1992. His testimony made history, opening the door to others who turned state’s evidence in return for reduced prison sentences. It’s hard to come out of this kind of film with a positive takeaway, but when Falcone tells Buscetta that “the mafia is not invincible; it had a beginning and will have an end,” one sees the important role of men like Buscetta who swam against the current and became "traitors," putting so many killers and drug traffickers in prison.

The story opens in 1980, during a fragile truce between the two rival Sicilian families in Palermo (the “old mafia,” Buscetta’s territory) and Corleone (where Toto Riina operates). Tommaso, who has no stomach for cold-blooded killing, moves with his family to Rio de Janeiro to stay out of harm’s way. He leaves two of his eight children behind in the care of the trusted Pippo Calo' (Fabrizio Ferracane). The boys are in their twenties and soon news reaches him that they are missing.

Full-fledged gang war has broken out back home between the clans, with more than 150 dead. Buscetta’s compere Totuccio Contorno (Luigi Lo Cascio) is caught in the middle of the massacre, but survives. All the more reason to stay put in Rio, where Tommaso and his Brazilian third wife (a magnetic Maria Fernandez Candido) live the high life, until the army bursts into their mansion and arrests him.

No amount of beating and torture at the hands of the police will make him admit to drug trafficking. In a dazzling scene, Buscetta is taken in a helicopter and made to watch his wife being dangled over the ocean from a second chopper. Jump to his extradition to Italy in 1984 in the company of some very polite Italian authorities. He has agreed to talk to the judges and is handled with kid gloves.

A witness of his caliber has never stepped forward before, and after being installed in well-guarded but comfortable surroundings, he meets Giovanni Falcone for the first time. Fausto Russo Alessi gives the investigator a perpetually somber look, as though he could see into the future and his own tragic destiny, recounted near the end of the film. The information he gets from Buscetta allows the police to arrest the mafia kingpins, including Toto Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, and it is decided they will all stand trial together in a “maxi trial.”

Bellocchio pushes the theatrical metaphor in the central courtroom scene, where the bosses stand in heavily barred cells around the room. Witnesses face the judges, protected behind bullet-proof glass. Everyone ignores the judge’s warnings to remain silent and not to use flashbulbs, and when Buscetta takes the stand to testify against them, the mafiosi scream and shout their insults like wild animals. Nicola Piovani’s operatic music completes the effect.

After the trial, Buscetta and his family enter a witness protection program in the U.S., but he is not through with Sicily yet, nor is the Cosa Nostra through with him. In a chilling coda, he accuses a powerful politician of being a secret mafia supporter and Italy moves uneasily into the new millennium. 

Production companies: IBC Movie, Rai Cinema, Kavac Film, Gullane Productions, Ad Vitam Production, Match Factory Productions
Cast: Pierfrancesco Favino, Maria Fernandez Candido, Farizio Ferracane, Luigi Lo Cascio, Nicola Cali, Giovanni Calcagno, Fausto Russo Alesi, Bruno Cariello
Director: Marco Bellocchio
Screenwriters: Marco Bellocchio, Ludovica Rampoldi, Valia Santela, Francesco Piccolo
Producers: Beppe Caschetto, Michael Weber, Viola Fugen, Simone Gattoni Caio Gullane, Fabiano Gullane, Alexandra Henochsberg
Executive producers: Paula Cosenza, Thiago Mascarenhas
Director of photography: Vladan Radovich
Production designer: Andrea Castorina
Costume designer: Daria Calvelli
Editor: Francesca Calvelli
Music: Nicola Piovani
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: Match Factory

135 minutes