Marco Bellocchio’s latest features a clash of cinematic styles with mixed results
One of Italy’s most remarkable directors, Marco Bellocchio’s films always have a sense of epic and insightful storytelling that works on multiple levels. With his latest, The Traitor, Bellocchio attempts to deliver a character study as well as an epic retelling of one of Italy’s most famous mafia wars which was feverishly covered in the media back in the 1980s and 1990s. The result is a mixed bag; two films in one. When The Traitor is a character study of a mafia man who strongly believes in his honor and principles, it works superbly to deliver a convincing, and at times affecting, portrayal of a man with contradictions and convictions. But when it narrates the story of the deadly clash between two of Italy’s most brutal drug gangs, it transforms into a talky, uninvolving procedural where courtroom drama replaces the dramatic and long, cluttered scenes of dialogue replace nuanced storytelling.
Chronicling a true story of a brutal drug war that erupted between two dominant gangs in Sicily in the 1980s, the film focuses on Tommaso Buscetta, a mafia head who decides to retire early enough to lead a serene life in Brazil. He leaves his sons back home in Italy and starts a new chapter with his third wife in Brazil. Soon after, the mafia war erupts, and his two sons are murdered by the opposing gang. He watches their demise from afar, fearing this is the start of something much more damning than he had imagined. Brazilian police capture him and sends him back to Italy. At first, Buscetta refuses to collaborate with the police. To him, being an informant is a disgraceful decision that he could never make. But when he meets with Judge Giovanni Falcone, he changes his mind and decides to collaborate.
Bellocchio wonderfully paints a picture of a man of contradictions: Buscetta never saw his collaboration with the police as snitching or betrayal. He was always a firm believer in the ‘values’ of the Cosa Nostra, the term he used to describe the mafia. Ever since he was young, he had joined the Cosa Nostra and gradually gained more power. The moral codes that Nostra members share prohibits them from ever harming the weak: the women, children and elderly. When his own children were murdred, Buscetta saw this as a rebellion of the codes he strongly values – and he views his collaboration with the police was an act of retaliation and not betrayal. He never regrets that decision, and is able to wither several storms of accusations of treason from society at large. But despite his convictions, there is an underlying fear that haunts the man: it’s game of who gets killed first and even when he moves to the United States – the reward he got upon testifying and collaborating with police – fear and guilt never leave him. Fear of being watched and targeted; guilt of not working hard enough to avoid his children’s fate. His life remains a mix of both emotions: pride and fear; strength and vulnerability – and Pierfrancesco Favino brilliantly captures the character’s essence. His performance is haunting, sincere and charismatic and remains the film’s heart.
Where the film falters is what comes after and in between this compelling character study. Midway into the film, Bellocchio turns it into a meandering courtroom drama, where opposing gangs, in unnecessarily long and slow-paced scenes, argue in court. Such scenes strongly impact the film’s pace and storytelling because they turn what was supposed to be a character study full of intrigue into needless ramblings that just don’t drive the story forward.
The result is two films in one; one that works and one that doesn’t. If Bellocchio had stuck with his intimate, observant storytelling approach, the film would have been a much more compelling testament to a dark age that Italians will never forget. Nevertheless, it’s a film that is not without its merits, led by a fantastic central performance.