Cannes 2019: Italian director Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor is a gratuitously lengthy biopic of Tommaso Buscetta
Italian director Marco Bellocchio’s (Fists in the pocket, Blood of My Blood) The Traitor is a modishly shot, sweeping yet gratuitously lengthy biopic of Tommaso Buscetta
Sicilian mafia makes for riveting true crime movies and television series, epitomised by Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 superhit Godfather (inspired by Mario Puzo’s book). For the bloodshed and mayhem it unleashed on the Italian society and the heavy sway it had on the country’s economy when it was exceedingly active decades ago, it’s only natural there are still too many tales to be told from inside the world’s most dangerous mafia.
Italian director Marco Bellocchio’s (Fists in the pocket, Blood of My Blood) The Traitor is a modishly shot, sweeping yet gratuitously lengthy biopic of Tommaso Buscetta, an important mafia gang member who turned an informant and helped the government indict more than 400 mafia members. Buscetta’s act helped the Italian government put a heavy lid on mafia activities but Buscetta himself is no saint. During his active mafia days, Buscetta was guilty of organised crime but almost every crime of his was absolved when he turned a star witness and became eligible for witness protection programme in his later years.
The Traitor opens with a conference of the syndicated mafia network on a misty moonlit night in 1980s Palermo, a city slowly being torn apart by appallingly regular mafia violence. Fatigued from overwork and family pressures (his son slips into addiction of the same cocaine he’s involved in smuggling), Tommaso Buscetta is considering retiring. When a mafia war blows up, instigated by the Mafia boss Totò Riina (Nicola Calì) and his Corleone clan, an opportunity presents itself. He flees to Rio and eventually takes a wife, Cristina (played by Maria Fernanda Cândido) and children, setting up a family under a false name.
Rule of law catches up with Buscetta who is arrested by the Brazilian authorities and extradited to Italy, despite his attempts to obstruct his own extradition by consuming poison. In Italy, he is met with trial judge, Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), who gently coaxes details of his mafia association from him and convinces him to be a state witness. The movie is part legal drama and punctuated by a heavy dose of court-scenes.
These chaotic court scenes are often filled with ludicrous shouting matches of arrested Mafiosi members - in cages. They run the risk of conferring a farcical air on the film though it’s perhaps a rightful interpretation of the real incidents. One Mafiosi member claims the guards need to be instructed to not to stare at him because they make him nervous. Another claims to have a nervous disorder if he’s not allowed to smoke his cigar inside the courtroom.
All of them equivocally engage in coordinated verbal abuse filled with vulgarity each time Tomasso enters the court for his testimony and cackle at him for every statement he makes. In another startlingly comical scene, a gaggle of Mafiosi wives rally into the courtroom and engage in a screaming match with the judge to let him know that their husbands are not traitors. All this renders the movie an air of an extended Italian soap opera. It does not do any favour that these scenes are also lengthy in nature.
Pierfrancesco Favino who plays Tomasso has a uniquely commanding screen presence and raw charisma filling the frames by exuding the air of a once-dangerous criminal with questionable moral values with palpable hungover pride from his successful underground days. Purportedly morally upright, he believes the Mafiosi is a made-up monstrous entity by the media and in its original form, it stands up to high moral values. “The mafia doesn’t exist. It’s an invention of the press. We call it costra nostra,” he tells Falcone unblinkingly. This claim is quickly shaken up when it’s pointed out to him that the mafia operates with the single most intention to eliminate anyone who stands in their way, even if it means killing children and women. Tomasso doesn’t bristle.
His friendship with judge Falcone starts out disjointed but slowly develops into a stronger bond over shared cigarettes and confessions in isolated witness rooms.
With a larger than life and sympathetic portrayal of Buscetta, Bellocchio paints his character with broader strokes than needed, risking glorification. Some scenes towards the end play out as if the movie is beseeching the viewer’s sympathy to a dangerous man, even as he may have been a valuable source in bringing the mafia rule in Sicily to an end.
The Traitor premiered at Cannes this week, exactly 27 years to the day Falcone’s car was blown up on a highway near Palermo on 23 May 1992 but the movie itself is not so much a tribute to Falcone’s work in bringing the mafia to the book. Rather it comes across as a celebration of the life of Buscetta, who, even as he was a Mafiosi with both his hands sunk deep in the honeypot of organised crime syndicate in Sicily, needed to show no remorse just because he switched sides.
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