Veteran filmmaker Marco Bellocchio examines machismo and Italian identity in this Mafia epic

Ruairí McCann on Marco Bellocchio’s ‘The Traitor’ (2019)

It’s 1979 and Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), a high-ranking Sicilian mafioso, or, as he tells it, a “simple soldier” is ill-at-ease within his organisation. This disconnection will grow exponentially and irreconcilably when a spate of revenge killings claim friends and family, including two of his own sons. He’s a man ripe for penitenze, for which he will find a conduit when arrested at his home in Rio and eventually extradited to Rome. Under the sway of the crusading Judge Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), he is soon guided onto the path of an informer.

The Traitor / Il Traditore is a true tale about the biggest trial in history at the time, of twenty years in and out of witness protection that would lead to mass convictions and make an unprecedented dent in the Sicilian Mafia’s stature and peace of mind. These twenty years make up the bulk of the film’s two and a half hour duration, with Buscetta just shy of being a constant presence. It’s a difficult role for sheer weight of screen time and high drama, but also because Favino is committed to playing thornily complex psychology and not just a vain silverback. An excellent play between transparent bravado and ambiguity engenders the perfect amount of disgust and sympathy for a self-obsessed chauvinist who, nonetheless, is embarking an admirable pursuit—to save his own hide, yes, but also out of principle that Falcone and Bellocchio would call “myth”, though to Buscetta is a bygone ideal: a moral and paternalistic incarnation of the Cosa Nostra.

It’s the dissonance in Buscetta’s persona, between an ideal of the Mafia and, by extension, Italian values, which are at the heart of the film’s concerns. The film’s ‘local’ interest, along with the emphatic swing to an otherwise classical form, locates Marco Bellocchio, who directed his first feature in 1965, within a contingent of left-wing, modernist Italian cinema which emerged in the 1950s and 60s. This includes fellow French New Wave imbiber Bernardo Bertolucci and the slightly more senior Francesco Rosi, to who’s The Mattei Affair / Il Caso Mattei (1972) this film bears a resemblance. By depicting the Mafia as both powerful shadow force and a pillar of Italian political life and culture, both titles present organised crime in a different context than their kin across the Atlantic—though The Godfather (1972) is a detectable influence on The Traitor’s melancholic, operatic sweep, and occasional grandiose violence.

This is not to say that the mob operates at a complete remove from American civics, or that there are no cinematic examples that reflect on the part they play. But the Sicilian Mafia, and similar criminal syndicates, have existed on Italian soil far longer than the New World. In Italy, they have played more significant societal roles, as a class that helped facilitate the transition between feudalism and capitalism and then the latter’s maintenance. 

One pair of tools that Bellocchio uses to tease out this intractability, and then analyse the character of the Mafia, is the presence of archival footage and a motif of screens within screens. While not used as extensively or adventurously as Vincere (2009), his Mussolini anti-hagiography and dissection of strongman theatrics, the results are blunt and potent. Such as the repeated glimpses at the security room of the prison where many of the convicted mafiosos are housed. Their incarcerated existence is depicted as a collage of incessant pacing and hysterics—miniatures of life stubbornly committed to stasis, which is expressed by emphasising this conservatism, or distracting from it, with performances of a very Catholic martyrdom and flamboyant machismo. 

It’s the court, then, which is the film’s most fertile ground for its delineation of Mafioso and Italian archetypes. Aided by a quasi-Brechtian conceit that for security reasons witnesses must always face the presiding judge and no-one else, a court of law then becomes the perfect stage for a Commedia all’Italiana. One that takes the hybrid form of a trial and a Greek tragedy. The witness stand as the proscenium, the heckling mafiosos and snapping paparazzi as the chorus, and the prevailing conceptions and expectations of being Italian, and their cross-examination, the performance.

The case at hand seems to be less about the Mafia’s crimes and the exact veracity of Buscetta’s testimony and more whether he lives up to an archetype: is he Jesus Christ or Judas Iscariot? Does he meet the expectations of socially conventional idea of Italian masculinity: prudish, family-minded, and Catholic? Or is he as valueless as the men he is decrying? This last question is pivotal for an era which opened in the wake of the 1974 divorce referendum and the century’s last great clash between the left and right and was ensconced in the boom-bust spread of neoliberalism, on the eve of Berlusconi. 

When in Rome, Buscetta’s Italianness is on trial, but in America, where we see Buscetta in witness protection and eventually end his days, it’s comparatively free, if curdled. For unlike the Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s philosopher-strongmen, fonts of history who still possess and flaunt some luster even as they succumb to decrepitude, Buscetta, who at one point apologies for his “lack of culture”, becomes an incongruous absurdity. Bellocchio amplifies the innate uncanny quality of passing Italy for Midwestern, Middle America by having him as gun-loving, retiree, encased or adrift through wide-angle shots of bland commercial and anonymous suburban spaces. It is to this purgatory that the film leaves Buscetta. Slouched in a jaundiced state, absorbed by a memory which, despite being free from the relentless recontextualisation of law and the image, the clarity of a full moon and the inevitability of the grave, gives a film about the vagaries and contradictions of a particular identity a suitably gnomic exit.  

The Traitor’ is available on digital download in the UK and Ireland from 24 July.

The Traitor / Il Traditore

Director Marco Bellocchio

Writer Marco Bellocchio, Valia Santella, Ludovica Rampoldi, Francesco Piccolo

Cinematographer Vladan Radovic

Editor Francesca Calvelli

Cast Pierfrancesco Favino, Luigi Lo Cascio, Fausto Russo Alesi, Maria Fernanda Cândido

Duration 153 minutes

Ruairí McCann

By Ruairí McCann

Ruairí McCann is a critic based in Belfast. He runs a monthly film column for Film Hub NI and has appeared in Photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Little White Lies, and The Thin Air.