Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 07, 2019 3:55 am 
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For the Italians, a national epic; for us, a sprawling gangster movie with a weird trial sequence

Marco Bellocchio's The Traitor seeks to depict the real life of Sicilian gangster Tommaso Buscetta, the so-called "boss of the two worlds." He is important because he was the first major mafia informant in Italy in the 1980's. The movie dramatizes with mind-blowing accuracy Buscetta's trial as "il primo grade pentito di Mafia," the first high ranking Mafioso "penitent one" or state's witness, or traditore, ("traitor") in the eyes of the Cosa Nostra. This film is very highly regarded in Italy (see Paolo Casella in MyMovies or Federico Girone in ComingSoon, two big Italian movie sites) and was in Competition at Cannes. Anglophone critics have found it impressive in scope, but in some ways underwhelming. To us it seems somewhat bogged down from the start by an over-abundance of detail, such as a long initial sequence of horrific, loud, violent moments showing assassinations, accompanied by a roll call of flowery Italian names.

Because this is different, more "documentary," though not in the least lacking in the elements of gangster grand opera, The Traitor may seem, to Anglos, ultimately lacking in the flair of the director's other works, such as his muted, haunting 2003 Aldo Moro kidnapping drama Good Morning, Night or his energetic and beautiful fascist biopic Vincere (NYFF 2009). And this is not to mention possible overshadowing by the famous early career-making Belloccio films of the Sixties, Fists in the Pocket and China Is Near, the latter celebrated by Pauline Kael as "one of the most astonishing directorial debuts in the history of movies."

The Traitor covers twenty years, skipping most of Buscetta's early career as a Mafia princeling. It falls into sections, dominated by its make-or-break testimony and trail segment. After the assassinations sequence shows off Cosa Nostra violence, we see Buscetta move to Brazil, to get away from that and to run crime operations in Rio with his family and Brazilian wife. He leaves behind his two adult sons, one of whom is a heroin addict; it's a decision he regrets after they are both killed by his enemies. But in Brazil he is arrested and tortured. A flashy scene shows him in one helicopter and his wife dangling from another as the cops try to loosen him up by threatening to drop her.

He goes back to Italy and reluctantly, more to save his family than out of any "repentance" (and he rejects all titles for what he's doing), he begins testifying to Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi). This happens in a series of private sessions and is the film's key relationship. Pierfrancesco Favino, the longtime character actor who plays Buscetta with enigmatic grandeur, made a point in the NYFF Q&A of repeatedly insisting (in his excellent English) that Falcone is the hero of this story, not Buscetta; that the men of the Cosa Nostra are evil, stupid fellows. Buscetta himself hereafter cherishes his relationship with Falcone - whose courage in pursuing this case will lead later to his death in an explosion in a car (duly depicted). In time Buscetta is given a roommate in his spacious prison accommodations, Totuccio Contorno (an excellent, low-keyed Luigi Lo Cascio), another high-ranking mafioso joining the ranks of pentiti.

Next, after Buscetta is provided with his choice of tailored suits (with a chance meeting at the tailor's with the soon-to-be-tried "Il Divo" Giulio Andreotti), comes the trial. This is what makes The Traitor special. It seems to a non-Italian operatic, chaotic, absurd: but it not only follows transcripts and extensive films of the events, but was able to be shot in the actual huge courtroom where the trial took place. The "cross-examinations" (confronti) where mafiosi abuse and accuse each other are wild, crazy macho stuff. Buscetta, this first time (he will return from witness protection later for a repeat performance), is in a glass cage in the middle, while lesser prisoners are in metal cages along the side.

After this, which results in the sentencing of hundreds of mafiosi, Buscetta joins his family in the US, in witness protection in various locations from Florida to New England to Colorado. This is interesting too, for its detail, the taste of danger he always felt, though, we learn, he died in his bed as he had wanted, at 71 - but this is also anti-climactic, the stuff of documentary, not of drama.

For Italians we have to remember the story of Tommaso Buscetta is a great national epic, some kind of partial rite of purification from a long, dark past. For us the movie is more of a mixed bag, with too many digressions to make well-structured drama. The craft and the acting are impeccable, though, and often impressive.

Another important point noted by Bellocchio in his NYFF Q&A (speaking in crystal-clear Italian) but lost to anglophone-only viewers, is that much of the dialogue of the film is in Sicilian dialect that is subtitled in Italian when the film is shown in Italy. He can't understand Sicilian himself. Most Italians can't. This important alienation effect is lost for the US audience, since the Sicilian dialogue simply gets the same English subtitles as the Italian. Buscetta tries to elevate himself by speaking a mixture of Sicilian and Italian (with some Portuguese, which he speaks always with his wife), but Contorno repeatedly points out that he cannot speak Italian. Awareness of this might help us understand a little better that Cosa Nostra is an alien empire, a strange and powerful cancer on the Italian state.

The Traitor/Il traditore, 145 mins., debuted in competition at Cannes with simultaneous Italian release; nine other festivals listed including Toronto and New York, screened at the latter for this review. Bought by Sony it's scheduled for US release Jan. 31, 2020. Current Metascore based on eight reviews: 57%. Highly regarded in Italy. Released in France Oct. 30, with an AlloCiné press rating of 4.3, equivalent to 86%.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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