Allegiance to La Cosa Nostra is for life. Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino) tried to leave, taking his third wife, Cristina (Maria Fernanda Candido), and their small children, and fleeing from Palermo to Brazil. Buscetta, no saint who did his share of killing as a Mafia solider, became disillusioned when Mafia head, Totò Riina (Nicola Cali), began to murder women and children. (Mafia members embracing family values while committing heinous crimes is one of the organization’s ironies.)
While Buscetta became rich from the Mafia’s heroin business, seeing his older son battling addiction might have been another factor in his decision. But even moving to another continent wasn’t far enough for Buscetta to escape the Italian authorities. Shortly after both his sons in Palermo go missing, he’s apprehended by Brazilian police and, in 1984, was extradited to Italy. After a failed suicide attempt, he’s left with few options and becomes an informant, providing valuable information about the inner workings of the Mafia, ultimately sending many of his former colleagues to prison.
Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor, in Italian with subtitles, takes some liberties with Buscetta’s true story, dropping some facts that would have portrayed him in a less flattering light. But he doesn’t make Buscetta out to be a hero, either. While testifying against Riina and others, Buscetta maintains his loyalty to La Cosa Nostra, explaining his exit from the organization was based on nothing more than a disagreement with new management. For their part, those who are on trial, deny they even know Buscetta, denials that are quickly dispelled with the photos that are placed into evidence.
While not as violent as other films and series about the Mafia, Bellocchio doesn’t hold back. Particularly brutal are the murders of Buscetta’s two sons, each suffering beatings before being choked to death. (In real lilfe, Buscetta’s two sons were never found.) The Brazilian police also cross the line when attempting to force a confession from Buscetta by dangling Cristina out of a helicopter.
Except for one shooting, the film does not show Buscetta as a violent man. And once he’s cornered by the Italian legal system Favino portrays him as docile. The scenes where he’s questioned by Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi) are civil, the two showing a grudging respect for each other. Anyone who goes after the Mafia in Italy, however, is made a target and Falcone would eventually be killed in a bomb attack.
It’s the courtroom drama, however, that distinguishes the film. Italian justice bears no resemblance to what happens in a U.S. courtroom. Defendants are held in cages at the rear of the courtroom and are also allowed to cross-examine witnesses. With frequent outbursts, the presiding judge must struggle to maintain order.
At more than two hours, The Traitor might have benefitted from better editing. And it’s difficult at times to keep track of the large cast of characters. But those who can’t get enough of films about the Mafia, should add this one to their list.
Photos courtesy of SonyPictures Classics