I had quite a trip to Rome circa 2004; I visited the Cinecitta studios, enjoyed a scabrous interview with Pasolini’s muse Laura Betti in her office-flat, scraped together the confidence to grab a hotel-room phoner with the venerable Ermanno Olmi, and visited one of Italian cinemas’ most perennially controversial figures, the great Marco Bellocchio. Sitting behind his desk in his spartan office, Bellocchio remains a key figure in his country’s cinema and politics; from his ground-breaking Fists in the Pockets (1965) onwards, he’s blazed a fearless trail.
So for Bellocchio to tackle the true-story of Tommaso Buscetta (played by Pierfrancesco Favino), the Palermo-born mobster who turned on the mafia back in the 1980’s, leading to hundreds of convictions and no end of deadly rancour, is something of a big deal. While my trip to Rome involved a certain amount of sightseeing, visiting the Spanish Steps not for their historical value but because they featured in poliziotteschi thriller Live Like A Cop, Die Like a Man. I understood these pulpy, visceral action movies to be symptomatic of a malaise in Italian society in the 1970’s; a mature director like Bellocchio tackles the cause rather than the symptoms.
The Traitor is a mammoth endeavour, a 153 minute palimpsest of Buscetta’s life in crime, observing his family life, his relationship with judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi) and the extraordinary show-trials which saw Buscetta accuse a plethora of key players of a mountain of crimes. The conversations between the two men are riveting, as are the cross-examination scenes; the bosses, revolting behind bars, seem cartoonish at first, but the intent behind the bravado is deadly. A shocking car-bomb scene, filmed in Foreign Correspondent-style, in the final third underlines that this is no pastiche, but the most serious kind of business imaginable.
Fans of Michele Placido’s Romanzo Criminale will enjoy seeing Favino here, giving a monumental performance as the troubled boss, publically seeking to return the Cosa Nostra to their original values. Whether this is expediency on Buscetta’s part or not is up to the viewer to discern, but the details are persuasive. Favino is a charismatic star who has featured in films as diverse as Night at the Museum, Angels & Demons, World War Z and Rush, but gets the room here to provide a portrait of a man who has an extraordinary willingness to risk his own life to uncover a truth. While Bellocchio is a very different character, it’s not hard to see why he would be attracted to this story; he’s never been afraid to set the cat amongst the pigeons.
An early cross-cut between a religious ceremony and some shocking Rio street-violence might conjure up thoughts of The Godfather, but this the mafia seen through the eyes of an artist who understands the modern reality not the romantic past. While I grew up enjoying the cartoonish side of 1970’s Italian cinema, movies like The Traitor are worth tracking down for their fearless adherence to the ideals of morality. This is a deluxe mob movie, done with the kind of wit, intelligence, and scrupulous spirit that make it a must see.
Thanks to Modern Films and Organic Publicity for early access to this title.
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