The Traitor (4 stars)

The Traitor

Classy and sometimes quirky crime drama from Marco Bellocchio, telling the true story of a mafia turncoat

Veteran filmmaker Marco Bellocchio (Fists in the Pocket, Vincere) brings a touch of class and a dash of eccentricity to this epic exploration of the Cosa Nostra – the mafia to you or I. Based on a true story, the turncoat in question is Sicilian mobster Tommaso Buscetta, our guide to an organisation in freefall from the outset.

Pierfrancesco Favino (Suburra, Romanzo Criminale) brings ample gravitas to the title role. When the film opens in 1980, Buscetta is an esteemed figure at a lively mafia gathering, where two sparring families broker peace in ostentatious environs. Nevertheless, Buscetta seems tense and restless, while suspicion peppers proceedings; there's scepticism amongst attendees that the peace will hold. It's not long before Buscetta has fled to Brazil, a decision made in the nick of time: a bloody mob war soon erupts, claiming many lives, including those of his adult sons.

Several years later, Buscetta is arrested and extradited to Italy, where he shockingly agrees to spill the beans on the inner workings and crimes of the Cosa Nostra, spurred on by the mutually respectful relationship he enjoys with Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), who takes down his testimony. Buscetta's co-operation incenses his fellow mafiosi, including his former friend, now vicious foe, Pippo Calò (Fabrizio Ferracane), though the state acquire another informant in Totuccio Contorno (Luigi Lo Cascio), who provides Buscetta with some companionship.

Presenting an onslaught of barbarism early on before slowing the action down, The Traitor makes much of the chaotic courtroom scenes, which see multiple defendants tried at once, to the exasperation of the presiding judge; the caged men at the back of the room bite their knuckles, hurl insults, strip off and bombard the justice with unusual requests ('The doctor says if I don't smoke I'll hyperventilate,' claims one).

As The Traitor flits through several decades, it perhaps doesn't spend enough time in each period, but Favino makes for a compelling constant and he's well-supported by a rogue's gallery of embittered associates. There are fleeting flashbacks, but it's a shame not to have explored the allegiances prior to the shit hitting the fan, to capture the scale of Buscetta's betrayal. Perhaps a TV format would have better suited the meaty story, but Bellocchio delivers cinematic grandeur that's undoubtedly alluring and he nods to big screen classics like The Godfather and Goodfellas without feeling too cripplingly in their debt.

It's a film that doesn't go overboard on pity, showing the criminals' power and eventual patheticness, as they hunch angrily in their cells, offering absurd denials and defences, and making feeble excuses for saving their own skin, supposedly born from differing notions of honour. Most memorably, it captures what it must be like to live your life looking over your shoulder and, given the brazen nature of the men's appalling crimes, the absolute inevitability of their demise.

Available on demand and in cinemas from Fri 24 Jul.

The Traitor

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • 2h 25min
  • Directed by: Marco Bellocchio
  • Cast: Pierfrancesco Favino, Luigi Lo Cascio, Fausto Russo Alesi

A biography of Tommaso Buscetta who was the first mafia informant in Sicily in the 80s.