Available for rent or purchase recently on YouTube, director Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor is an Italian biographical crime drama film that won seven accolades from the Italian film award, the Nastro d’Argento. It was selected as the Italian entry for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards and also earned a few nominations at the 32nd European Film Awards.

At 135 minutes long, it’s an interesting and sometimes compelling film. Curiously, it feels too long yet also too short. That’s because some scenes seem to drag on for too long while others should have been longer. Moreover, many sequences, in terms of acting, dialogue, and cinematography come across as nuanced and deep while others are almost amazingly over-the-top. In other words, it’s an Italian movie.

The narrative is a sweeping epic that covers three decades, from the ’70s to the ’90s, giving us a look at Sicilian mobster culture, Italian media culture, and the Italian courtroom culture. Here, Tommaso Buscetta, played by imposing Pierfrancesco Favino, is not a popular man. The police, the mob, journalists, and surprisingly, even some of the public, dislike him because he is an informant.

The Traitor is shot for Italian consumption, it doesn’t waste time explaining things it expects its audiences to already be familiar with, such as the historic mob trial it depicts

Because The Traitor is shot for Italian consumption, it doesn’t waste time explaining things it expects its audiences to already be familiar with, such as the historic mob trial it depicts.

Buscetta, of course, was pivotal in Italy’s famous mafia maxi-trial in 1986, where a startling 338 people from the Italian mafia were convicted. It was the largest mafia trial in history and was symbolic in the sense that it displayed the state’s willingness to go after a murderous organisation that was growing increasingly powerful and influential due to its success in the drug trade. In total, 10 million dollars in fines were handed out and 2,665 years of jail terms were given.

Buscetta, the key to all of this, was almost certainly a made man, which is why his betrayal was shocking to so many in the country. Initially, he was a foot soldier when he joined the Sicilian mafia (Cosa Nostra) in 1945, but quickly rose higher in rank. In 1963, he escaped capture from the Italian police and hid in Brazil. He was caught and extradited before escaping prison and returning to South America.

Captured again, he was handed over to the Italian police, after which he decided to tell everything to Judge Giovanni Falcone, who here is played by Fausto Russo Alesi. Buscetta, a man with some honour for a bad guy, broke the honour code because he had become disenchanted by the direction taken by Cosa Nostra.

When the Cosa Nostra starts killing the vulnerable, when innocents fall victim to the drug trade — like his son to heroin — he grows disillusioned. And when his own sons suffer, and his wife is dangled from a helicopter, it becomes personal. That’s when he decides to snitch.

The film is well-acted. Pierfrancesco Favino is superb and delivers a gripping performance. I also liked how Marco Bellocchio, unlike many American filmmakers, does not glamourise mafia culture. In fact, the film is an indictment of their brutality and evilness. The film also has some memorable scenes that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

However, there’s a detached nature to the characterisation that holds the film back. Moreover, the courtroom scenes are a mixed bag. It’s amusing to watch bad buys in cages in a shockingly chaotic court, but the courtroom drama isn’t as fascinating as The Traitor thinks. But The Traitor has enough in the tank otherwise to be a worthwhile watch.

Rated R for violence, sexual content, language and brief graphic nudity

Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2020