The Traitor | 2019 Cannes Film Festival Review
Witness for the Prosecution: Bellocchio Delivers Vigorous Portrait of the Man Who Took Down the Cosa Nostra
Italian auteur Marco Bellocchio, on the verge of entering his eighties, presents one of the liveliest offerings of his six-decade career with The Traitor, an expose on Tommaso Buscetta, the first high profile mafia informant whose testimony led to a landmark court case, setting a precedent for others to come forward against the criminal organization. Pierfrancesco Favino, known for his appearances in countless supporting roles from mainstream Hollywood productions, stars as Buscetta, initially a reluctant witness and eventual informant poster boy who is mournful of the days when the Cosa Nostra was an organization dependent on “men of honor.” Having steadily directed films since his celebrated 1965 debut Fists in the Pocket, Bellocchio has presented a wide range of genres throughout his career, and his take on an integral chapter of the Sicilian mafia manages to add something new to an over-glorified subject matter.
The early 1980s was not a golden era for Sicilian mafia bosses (who preferred the moniker Cosa Nostra, as ‘mafia’ was terminology invented by the media). The old code of honorable conduct (which meant not killing women and children) was out the door as the Corleone family began to cannibalize the Buscettas in a fight to control the heroin trade. Tommaso “Tommy” Buscetta (Favino), previously respected as a “boss of the two worlds,” chooses to flee to Brazil with his wife Cristina (Maria Fernanda Cândido) and his youngest children, leaving two elder sons behind in Sicily. But as more and more members of the Buscetta clan are assassinated, including his two elder sons, he’s pressured to return. However, before he can make the decision himself, Buscetta is arrested, tortured and extradited, delivered to Italian authorities who convince him it’s in his best interests to become an informant. When he decides to do so, Buscetta’s testimony blows a hole in the Corleone’s violent stronghold.
Much of the success of The Traitor relies on the central performance of Favino, who pivots from a cliched, narcissistic “soldier” to a fount of grizzled mirthfulness in his castigation of his previous employers. For a good deal of the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time, Bellocchio walks us through the usual beats, albeit with some additional minor flourishes (an onscreen ticking body count during the rampant obliteration of the Buscetta clan at the hands of Corleone’s crew, for instance).
Where Bellocchio reaches elements of the sublime is during the courtroom reenactments, with a gaggle of fingered mobsters locked in cages behind the court, howling like animals, spitting expletives (“cuckold” and “ball-less” seem to be favored, along with the devil’s horns and plenty of dick grabbing) as Buscetta wryly addresses their counter accusations.
Maria Fernanda Cândido, appearing as Buscetta’s third wife Cristina, recalls Sophia Loren, an elegant beauty who, while not required to do much, makes a noted impression. Likewise, Fabrizio Ferracane as the two-faced, power hungry Pippo Calò is memorably malevolent. And while some of DP Vladan Radovic’s interior party sequences can have a tendency to undermine some of the film’s other superior qualities, the zealous energy of a trio of courtroom sequences makes those moments easier to overlook.
Periodically, a filmmaker manages to breathe new life into the staple of Italian mafioso cinema, forever shrouded by imprints of Coppola, Scorsese and more contemporary auteurs like Garrone. Bellocchio, as with his 2009 portrait of Mussolini in Vincere, creates another late period masterstroke with The Traitor.
Reviewed on May 23rd at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival – Main Competition. 135 Minutes.