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There is a moment in The Traitor where the Brazilian police try to get a mafia soldier to talk. They threaten him, they beat him up, then they take him up in a helicopter. A second helicopter appears, and the cops dangle the soldier’s wife from it. She’s terrified and screaming, but he does not flinch. He calls their bluff. The Traitor is based on a true story, and while we don’t know whether this incident actually happened, it presents such an operatic, intense web of betrayal and violence that every scene is at least somewhat plausible. No courtroom drama has ever been this wild or bombastic. 

Director Marco Bellocchio presents a lot of exposition very quickly. We learn that Sicily’s Cosa Nostra controls the world’s heroin trade, and two rival factions are vying for power. This war leads to hundreds of deaths, and Bellocchio includes an on-screen counter of every grisly murder. Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino) is one small cog in this massive criminal enterprise. After effectively retiring to Brazil, he is extradited back to Italy and meets his rival, judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi). A funny thing starts to happen: Tommaso starts to talk. He supplies the Italian government with valuable information, leading to the downfall of his organization.

The big question is why Tommaso does all this, and the film takes its time to answer it. His rationale is bizarre and self-serving—he feels his accomplices abandoned a moral code to which he still adheres. What makes this reckoning so dramatic is how Bellocchio presents the trials where Tommaso is the star witness. He is in the room with every mobster he identified, all of whom are powerful, violent men, and the judges can barely control their outrage. There are other wild incidents, like when the mafia wives show up, or when one defendant mutilates himself to guarantee his silence. All this suggests the power Cosa Nostra once wielded over Italy. They were not just tolerated; for some civilians, they were essential to everyday life.

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Throughout the film, Tommaso remains a stoic, almost passive character. He rarely says what he is really thinking. This is a shrewd way for The Traitor to involve the audience in its unlikely protagonist, although Bellocchio stops short of calling him a hero. Instead, there are small sequences of recognizable eccentricity. After the first trial, Tommaso and his family relocate to the United States under a witness protection program. His scenes of assimilation are wry and comic, particularly when he decides to buy an AR-15 rifle in a grocery store. Maybe Bellocchio’s view of American life is cynical, but then again, he ably conveys the gnawing paranoia of a man who is wanted by the world’s deadliest criminals.

The Nastro d’Argento is Italy’s equivalent of the Academy Awards, and The Traitor received several top prizes, including best actor for Favino. Like in other great mob movies, Favino portrays nuance without making excuses for his duplicitous, brutal nature. Tommaso’s scenes with Judge Falcone are the film’s moral center, a back-and-forth debate with two men who ultimately see themselves as equals, maybe even friends. Tommaso is sympathetic here because he finally seems capable of introspection. But Bellocchio never lets us forget what Tommaso is capable of, and there are disturbing scenes where Favino’s blank stare seamlessly shifts into something way more sinister.

Throughout The Traitor, there are alarming details about the mob’s omniscience. Rather than face prison time, Tommaso attempts suicide. There is a march in the street where blue collar workers express sympathy for Cosa Nostra. One bravura sequence shows a car bomb from the inside of the car (the chaos and complete loss of body autonomy is disturbing). There is a lot of action in this film, but it is all meant to punctuate the lengthy, bitter courtroom arguments between Tommaso and the men he accused. Sometimes the accused have the opportunity to confront Tommaso head on, arguing over who said what and when. The grim punchline is that, once the mafia lose all that illusion of power, these men have no recourse but to argue exactly like kids who got caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

The Traitor opens Friday in theaters everywhere.

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