THE WASHINGTON POST – Based on the life of Tommaso Buscetta, the Italian mafioso-turned-informant whose testimony in high-profile trials in the 1980s and 1990s helped shed light on the inner workings of La Cosa Nostra and bring several of its members to justice, The Traitor is as just as brutal as you might expect from such a true-crime tale. Yet 80-year-old director Marco Bellocchio enriches the on-screen bloodshed with richly detailed performances and an unpredictable energy that lifts the period crime drama above a mere gangster flick.
The film’s shifting timeline begins in 1980 at a Palermo estate where generations of Italian families have gathered before. The gathering we are witnessing is an attempt to make peace between warring factions of the mafia, although it looks like a celebration, complete with fireworks. Too quickly, however, the festive tone deteriorates into what is effectively a story of familial betrayal.
Pierfrancesco Favino stars as Buscetta, a “made man” who gets caught in the middle of the vicious heroin wars that bloodied Palermo streets in the 1980s. A “man of honour”, as he calls himself, Buscetta also had earned another nickname: “boss of two worlds”, based on his criminal enterprises in Sicily and Brazil, where he fled Italian authorities. When the Sicilian drug trade heats up, Buscetta’s eldest sons are killed by a rival clan, as if daring him to return home. And after making a deal with Brazilian officials, it’s in Italy that Buscetta earns the film’s titular nickname, laying bare the mafia’s power structure to the authorities, and accusing his former colleagues for Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi).
Even with on-screen titles that identify who’s who, it can be hard to keep track of the complex mob alliances in this story. But Bellocchio has a trick up his sleeve that builds tension as the bodies pile: When somebody’s about to get killed, an on-screen counter appears with a running tally of the fatalities so far.
For all the carnage, the film is even more volatile in courtroom scenes in which Buscetta con-fronts such fellow criminals as Pippo Calò (Fabrizio Ferracane). During the trial, shouting matches turn the Italian justice system into what looks like a circus, all the more so because the members of the Sicilian mafia are kept in cage-like pens in the back of the courtroom.