La Cosa Nostra’s American arm has long occupied the cinematic imagination, from Goodfellas (1990) to Casino (1995). Nevertheless, there exist far less examples of solely Sicilian-based mafia films. While both outfits self-grandiosely think of themselves as present-day Robin Hoods, good guys rebelling against an overbearing government to provide assistance to their fellow countrymen, the Sicilian mafia cops to such imagery with greater regularity. Nevertheless, they remain a mystery, mostly because they allow for less high-profile informants. With the exception of one: Tommaso Buscetta. The former mob boss became informant for the Italian government, and his life is exhaustively recounted in director Marco Bellocchio’s newest film The Traitor.
Opening with the prospects of a truce between the Italian mafia families, brokered in Palermo in 1984, Bellocchio’s biopic introduces each main player through operatic snapshots. Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino) plans to walk away from the life, fleeing to Brazil with his wife Maria (Maria Fernanda Cândido) and his six young children (leaving his two adult sons behind). However, when a war breaks out between the families, and his allies and family members in Sicily are murdered, he’s arrested by the Italian government. Under the guise of Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi) he becomes the first Mafia boss to turn informant.
While Buscetta claims himself as the product of the old code: Cosa Nostra, the aforementioned Robin Hood archetype, Bellocchio meticulously dissects such assertions as self-told fables by the former mob boss. Nevertheless, the runtime is overwrought—Bellocchio slowly follows his subject over the course of 135-minutes —often pedantically widowing through with title cards and dates like a Wikipedia article. While there are flights of sudden violence, some that discover the twisted psychology of many of the Mafiosos, we learn too much of Buscetta that really only tells us little about him. Favino provides his part with incredible humanity, rocky bruteness, and suaveness—but the secretivity of his character in combination with cumulus biographical notes never makes Buscetta more than a hollow figurehead. That may have worked for his criminal persona, but it doesn’t make for a compelling film.