What a Racket
By Demi Kampakis

NYFF 2019:
The Traitor
Dir. Marco Bellocchio, Italy, Sony Pictures Classics

“You can’t take money to the grave,” grumbles Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino) early in The Traitor, when asked by a close friend and fellow made man Pippo Calo (Fabrizio Ferracane) the reason behind his relocation to Brazil at a time when the heroin trade was at its lucrative peak. In every mob story, death is the specter that looms over each character and his or her life choices, a threat that’s always patiently and eagerly waiting just around the corner. With an impending local war over Palermo territory against the Corleone faction percolating more by the day, Buscetta very well understands this fatal inevitability, and he wisely decides to get out of dodge. Having safely settled into a new life in Brazil with his third wife, Maria Cristina (Maria Fernanda Candido), and their infant son, the lovers’ domestic bliss proves short-lived when word reaches Tommaso that his two adult sons from a previous marriage, who stayed behind in Palermo, have gone missing.

Beginning in the early 1980s at a time when Italian organized crime was shifting to the sale of narcotics, which had previously been prohibited, The Traitor tells Tommaso Buscetta’s true, decade- and continent-spanning, stranger-than-fiction story. This “Godfather of Two Worlds” was the infamous, larger-than-life head of the Porto Nuova Crime Family, and Sicily’s first mob informant, whose testimonies helped indict over 500 Mafiosi during Italy’s Maxi Trials, leading to nearly 400 convictions. Anyone familiar—and even those not so familiar—with the story of this don-turned-defector will be pleased with veteran director Marco Bellocchio’s faithful period recreation of this seismic moment in Italy’s history, which centers on the events leading up to and surrounding the nation’s trial of the century.

In an effort to consolidate power and territory, implacable rival Corleonesi leader Toto Riina (Nicola Cali) seizes on the vacuum left behind in the wake of Tommaso’s departure—which many in the mob already saw as its own stinging betrayal and form of abandonment—by sanctioning a bloody war against any perceived adversaries, and his ruthless campaign to wipe out the competition and take down any and all potential threats leaves a staggeringly high body count in its wake. Bellocchio effectively quantifies this wreckage through a ticking body count tracker on the lower left of the frame, which rises so quickly and steeply that at first it’s unclear if this figure is referring to fatalities as opposed to those implicated by Tommaso, since they’re both in the hundreds. Under Riina’s lawless command, targets aren’t just limited to rival factions or fellow wiseguys—civilians and next of kin are now being hunted, and innocent people are dropping like flies. For Tommaso’s sons, even more vulnerable in their father’s absence, the simple crime of being their father’s progeny is enough to seal their grisly fates. In this new age of the Cosa Nostra, families were fair game.

Soon after learning of his sons’ disappearances, Buscetta is arrested on drug trafficking charges by Brazilian authorities and is expedited back to Italy to stand trial. Returning to his hometown after being tortured by the brutal military dictatorial regime—one particularly harrowing sequence sees military officers dangling Cristina from a helicopter over the Atlantic, as Tommaso is forced to watch from a separate helicopter several meters away—and wanting to avenge the death of his sons, which happened while he was in custody, Tommaso turns to the most damning and dangerous weapon for vengeance: the rule of law. Though at first reluctant to turn state’s witness, it doesn’t take much convincing from Cristina and Judge Giovanni Falcone (the woefully underutilized Fausto Russo Alesi) for Tommaso to realize that leveraging his standing in the syndicate by becoming a valuable informant is really the only card he has, and it’s in his best interest to play it.

Their ensuing conversations and interrogations become a cautious meeting of the minds, as criminal kingpin and custodian of justice reach a certain mutual respect and understanding, facilitated over a shared pack of cigarettes. In the thousands of pages of transcript that followed, Buscetta revealed a bounty of invaluable classified information regarding the organization’s inner workings, hierarchy, and sacrosanct rituals. For the first time in history, the mafia’s machinations were revealed to the general public and law enforcement with incredible detail, breadth, and scope. Naturally, the mobsters Tommaso implicated saw this breach of sworn secrecy, taken as a sacred blood oath, as more than mere betrayal—it was heretic treason.

The Traitor devotes much of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime to the courtroom proceedings that followed, in which the captured defendants were tried at once. Corralled like sharply dressed livestock into rows of cells situated in the back of the courtroom, these livid wiseguys hurl a cacophony of aggrieved objections, disingenuous assertions of innocence, and hysterical invective, the latter reaching a fever pitch when Tommaso enters the courtroom, his back turned to his nemeses as he testifies in a bulletproof booth. One can feel the seething fury emanating from the accused like heat ripples in smog, and Bellocchio seizes the opportunity to revel in this dizzying spectacle—as evidenced by the staging of the courtroom, which, often shot in wide frames, not so subtly brings to mind an opera theater, as furious mob wives are seen screaming from the mezzanine. While it’s tempting to view these histrionics as dramatic fabrications, almost everything that unfolds was captured on video recordings of the actual trial, and lifted from official testimony transcripts. Nonetheless, Bellocchio doesn’t resist the opportunity to ham up the fracas an extra notch or two, to discombobulating effect. These cigar-smoking, profanity-spewing defendants want nothing more than to get their hands on the rat in their presence, and it’s amusing to observe how the overwhelmed authorities clearly had no idea how to handle such bedlam.

While these courtroom scenes often crackle with a clamorous kinetic energy, their vociferous repetition soon become numbing, prioritizing pageantry over narrative momentum and character growth. Despite the film’s bloated investment in mapping out the multiple trials that precipitated over the course of nearly a decade, there are moments when Bellocchio’s exasperating patience pays off; namely, during the quiet cross-examinations between Tommaso and those he betrayed, which double as long-awaited confrontations. Unfolding over real time, these lengthy exchanges offer a thrilling element of intimidation for both parties; denied the satisfaction of lunging toward each other, they channel their bloodlust into icy, verbal contempt. This gives their testimonials a meandering unpredictability that’s riveting in its menacing subtext. Unlike the earlier disorienting, collective anarchy, these scenes benefit from a sense of focus and intimacy, and it’s telling that they’re among the few examples where the film breaks from the propelling action in favor of shedding crucial insight on the history shared between these men, and how their dynamics were curdled by unthinkable betrayal on both sides.

The film never provides a fully fleshed-out portrait of Tommaso’s motivations, or attempts to meaningfully probe his internalized response to the sudden spotlight he’s thrust in. He ostensibly justifies his actions by pointing out his disgust at the new direction the Cosa Nostra has gone in—explaining to Falcone that the brotherhood he’s betraying is completely unrecognizable from the one he joined, when there were standards of conduct and codes of honor. He recalls the story of his first ordered hit at the age of 18. When his intended target spotted Tommaso while leaving his child’s baptism, he immediately understood that he was a condemned man, and, certain that Tommaso wouldn’t have the heart to kill a newborn, he grabbed his baby to use as a literal human shield. He was right, and for years, even decades, the father kept his child by his side whenever out in public (inadvertently making himself a doting, hands-on dad, a darkly comic upside). Like death itself though, Tommaso was ever the patient soldier, and the film’s closing scene revisits the anecdote to bring this story full circle, driving home the notion that those who choose to enter the life can never leave it behind, and that death can only be staved off for so long. Gangsters are used to wielding their power, whether through fear, manipulative charm, or slimy charisma, and it’s gratifying to witness Falcone see right through Tommaso’s transparent stabs at moral justification. In respectable mainstream society, it’s men like Falcone who wield the most power and influence, and he humbly reminds Tommaso that being an honorable thief still means a corruption of the soul.

The idea of a gangster’s cognitive dissonance is a fascinating avenue to explore, yet Bellocchio favors a mostly straightforward true-crime story with handsome scale and scope. While the film briefly teases Tommaso’s internal contradictions, Bellocchio never meaningfully wrestles with the weight of their implications, which is problematic for a film fixated on the multifaceted nature of atonement. Does he seek penitence in order to absolve himself of his guilty conscience? And, for that matter, does he even feel guilt or remorse? Or is this merely an act of self-preservation, a way to secure his freedom and the safety of his family? Assuming this was merely a pragmatic necessity—as suggested in his assertion that “I’m a man who had to defend himself, and to do so I had to tell the truth”—does he feel conflicted in any way with feelings of doubt, regret or longing for the good old days? Or is it possible that he just simply wanted revenge?

Ultimately, The Traitor’s distended preoccupation with plot over portraiture outpaces its main character. Much of what’s dramatized here has long been mythologized in popular culture; even the film’s opening celebratory sequence boasts a tired baroque aesthetic likeness to Coppola and Visconti. It’s disappointing to note Bellocchio’s missed opportunities to dive into Tommaso’s emotional reservoirs; such as exploring his relationship with Falcone, Riina, Calo or fellow defector and friend Totuccio Contorno (Luigi Lo Cascio); or following up on a certain piece of testimony late in the film that could offer a peek into the fallacies of his cultivated unimpeachable public persona. The film’s insular mob milieu—mostly confined to institutional spaces, the streets of Palermo, and Tommaso’s banal life in American Witness Protection—also fails to illustrate the effect of the syndicate’s reign of terror on the local community and how even those who weren’t directly affected by the violence were nonetheless victims. Bellocchio never even leans into the ostentatious glamour of early gangsterism, which would at least provide context for why these men were drawn to the life in the first place, and also set up a profound contrast to their incarcerated and moribund destiny.

In its lack of scenes depicting Tommaso’s early crimes, the film risks painting him as a sympathetic figure and harmless womanizer with minimal blood on his hands, a man who’d much rather “fuck than command,” as he puts it. None of this detracts from the performance of Favino, who does a tremendous amount of heavy lifting, and maintains a tight emotional center of gravity, as a burly and imposing figure with commanding magnetism who keeps his cards close to his chest. But films with even the most enigmatic and impenetrable protagonists can attempt to unravel these layers with nuance. In that regard, The Traitor can’t help but draw comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, another historical epic mob saga at this year’s New York Film Festival. Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran is the perfect case study in the tragic pathos that can resonate from inscrutability. With Tommaso, Bellocchio presents a figure whose inaccessibility is not a bug, but a feature.