Corleone. A name associated with one thing and one thing only. In The Godfather, it was the family name, taken from a small Sicilian village. In Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor another clan bears the same name and we’re on very similar dramatic territory – only this time the person at the centre of the story breaks the ultimate unwritten code of the Cosa Nostra.
The opening celebratory scenes are inescapably redolent of the wedding at the start of Coppola’s masterpiece, but this time the event marks an uneasy truce between two Mafia families. It doesn’t last. As the counter in the corner of the screen shows, 85 people are killed during the first fifteen minutes of the film, just after Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), one of the most senior figures at the party, has moved from Sicily to Brazil. He manages to avoid the massacre, but is soon extradited back to Italy, where he meets anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi) and becomes the first high-ranking member of the Cosa Nostra to turn informant.
Ultimately, Buscetta’s testimonies resulted in the arrest of 366 mafiosi, most of whom spent varying periods of time in prison. But it comes at a personal cost, including witness protection in the States, separation from his wife and children, being ostracised by his family and the constant suspicion that, at some stage, his former colleagues and/or enemies will track him down. As he explains to Falcone from the outset, Cosa Nostra is for life: once that oath of loyalty is sworn, you can never leave, no matter how hard you try. And much of the film follows him in various locations as he tries to dodge the inevitable bullet.
That opening sets the scene for a general sense of familiarity. The use of opera as the soundtrack for especially dramatic moments, subdued lighting, as well as the frequency and ingenuity of the killings all reinforce that. But the film has a bigger problem when it comes to the narrative, especially for a non-Italian audience. The vast array of characters, many of whom end up dead, are easily confused while the various power struggles are so intertwined as to be impenetrable, and the tension inherent in the story has most of the energy sucked out of it.
Except for one prolonged sequence, which occupies a large chunk of the film’s second half. The so-called Maxi Trial, in which hundreds of defendants were put on trial simultaneously as Buscetti gave his testimonies, is brilliantly re-enacted. Highly theatrical, melodramatic and a dreadful indictment of the Italian justice system, it’s all the more extraordinary because it actually happened. What judge would ask for a medical certificate in a non-smoking court when a prisoner puffing on cigars claims his doctor prescribes them for his anxiety? This one does. It also gives Favino, one of Italy’s most familiar actors, his chance to really shine in the role and he grasps it with both hands, especially in his face to face confrontations with former friend Pippo Calo (Fabrizio Ferracane).
While The Traitor tells an important story, its running time of well over two hours is over-inflated and there are times when the action simply sags. Without the trial sequences and the astonishing sight of all the defendants caged together as they watch the proceedings – and participate in them whether the judge likes it or not – it would have plodded on to its inevitable conclusion. As it stands, it’s a true crime drama that peaks about half way through. And what comes afterwards is always going to be second best.
Drama, Crime, Biography | Cert: tbc | Modern Films | Ed Film Fest At Home 28 – 5 July. Digital, 24 July 2020 | Dir. Marco Bellocchio | Pierfrancesco Favino, Fausto Russo Alesi, Fabrizio Ferracane.