Film Review | The Traitor: Taking refuge in the truth

Closing the Valletta Film Festival in rigorous style, Marco Bellocchio’s exhaustive-but-exhausting biopic excels at portraying one of the key flashpoints of Mafia history

The evident pitfalls of Mafia narratives come in both ethical and aesthetic shapes.

On the one hand, it does us good to question how organised crime is framed in the world of cinema – an even more urgent concern when mass entertainment is the top priority – and particularly when the films in question attempt to bridge the geographical-cultural divide. What will come across as intriguing and gritty hi-octane entertainment to outsiders may feel a bit too close to the bone for Italian audiences who would bristle upon seeing yet another glorified take on a brutal and insidious criminal organisation that has wreaked havoc on the nation since the early days of the 20th century.

But the aesthetic obstacle to creating a memorable and vital film about Italy’s organised crime milieu shouldn’t be sniffed at either. With Il Traditore (‘The Traitor’) – which served as the closing film at the Valletta Film Festival on June 23 – veteran director Marco Bellocchio cuts through the mythologising and sensationalising to deliver a hefty piece of cinematic testimony that exposes the inner workings of the ‘Cosa Nostra’ with sometimes exhausting but often compelling rigour.

Former Cosa Nostra footman turned bona fide drug smuggler Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino) is living the high life in Brazil during the early 1970s. Or at least, that seems to be the case on the surface of things, as an erstwhile parliament of Sicilian Mafia bosses dangles the possibility of a ‘truce’ between the separate factions of the Cosa Nostra. But Buscetta’s worst niggling fears are confirmed when the opposing side – the so-called ‘Corleonesi’ – begin to systematically eliminate his friends: a massacre motivated by the desire to fully control the heroin trade, and which triggers the ‘Second Mafia War’ in 1981.

When the bloodshed spreads to members of his family, Buscetta chooses to turn informant (pentito), leading to the most historically significant expose’ of Mafia superstructures up to that point.

Allowing itself a leisurely running time that nonetheless feels fully crammed with information and character beats, The Traitor is a masterful feat of historical film-making, eschewing any short-cuts in favour of presenting the history-making trajectory of Tommaso Buscetta’s courageous battle against the Cosa Nostra in all of its complexity.

While the unsentimental and thoroughly precise approach that Bellochio adopts can hardly be faulted on an intellectual level, it ultimately makes for something of a draining experience. We are thrown into the world in medias res, and bombarded with names and situations that are likely to only just become clearer to the non-Italian viewer later on, when the accurately-reconstructed trials and interviews with firebrand Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi) allow for both compelling drama and much-needed info-dumping.

A mature film through and through, it gets a welcome injection of both charisma and emotion thanks to Pierfrancesco Favino’s powerful central performance. Though hardly deflating his image as a bad-boy-done-good, neither does the film let him entirely off the hook, with Falcone calling him out on his bullshit the minute Buscetta begins to wax lyrical about Cosa Nostra’s supposedly honourable good old days.

The verdict

Both for its contribution to the chronicling of Mafia history as well being a beacon of stark truth in a world of fragmented information and ‘fake news’, Marco Bellocchio’s substantial biopic is certainly a worthwhile cinematic proposition, and makes for an appropriately dense and compelling closing film for the Valletta Film Festival. The flip-side of its admirable rigour is perhaps its very refusal to opt for short-hand, sensationalism of caricature – resulting in a film that may not be all that digestible, leaving one somewhat exhausted by its exhaustiveness as the two-and-a-half hour behemoth slouches its way to the celluloid horizon. Still, as the film itself proves so admirably, the truth is not always all that easy to swallow.

The Traitor was be screened as the closing film of the Valletta Film Festival on June 23 at Pjazza Teatru Rjal, Valletta at 9pm.