The Maxi Trial, which took place between 1986 and 1992 and saw the prosecution of nearly 350 members of the Cosa Nostra, remains an abiding fascination in contemporary Italian history – and, naturally enough, in Italian cinema too. It’s a crucial event, to one degree or another, in films ranging from Paolo Sorrentino’s IL DIVO to Kim Longinotto’s recent documentary SHOOTING THE MAFIA. In THE TRAITOR, director Marco Bellocchio uses as a point of entry into this context the figure whose testimony assisted the state in their legal efforts against the mafia: Tommaso Buscetta, played here by Pierfrancesco Favino.
The film opens with a celebration. The Cosa Nostra have just ratified their newest priority: to import, refine, and distribute heroin, and reap the lucrative financial rewards involved. But Buscetta is visibly ill-at-ease. A quick glimpse of him passing a doorway is enough to curdle the air of good-will and fellowship in the room. Bellocchio tends to shoot conversations in close-ups with a long lens, isolating Buscetta and the person with whom he’s talking from the rest of the party, emphasising (sometimes ironically) the allegiance between the speakers. His mind is set: he’s off to Brazil.
Before he’s arrested and extradited back to Italy, he learns that members of the Corleonesi have killed many of his associates. THE TRAITOR is not forthcoming about Buscetta’s exact motivations for what he does next. Whether in desire for revenge, or principled objection to what he sees as the degradation of Cosa Nostra custom (perhaps an expedient idealism), or to protect his family, he decides upon return to collaborate with the state, represented in ideological synecdoche here by Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi).
In the nearly 500 pages of transcript from those interviews conducted by Falcone, Buscetta provides explanations of the initiations, rituals, and organising principles of the mafia, as well as details of its structure, its influence, and its past and present criminal endeavours: his words are a Cosa Nostra Rosetta Stone. The legal bounty he’s handing to the state allows the Maxi Trial, in all its furious, circus-like whirr of noise and movement, to begin.
And Bellocchio is clearly having a ball with regards to his staging of the trial. The montages create a hyper-theatrical atmosphere, as the camera jumps around the clamorous din of the courtroom, catching the Cosa Nostra members unleashing invective from their separate cells, behind a phalanx of councillors and lawyers, with Buscetta at the front ensconced in a bullet-proof box. (One mafia affiliate is silent though: because he has just sown his lips shut.) This absurd spectacle is made bleakly funny by the increasing exasperation on the judge’s face. Cross-examinations are allowed by the same beleaguered judge. In contrast to the firm but mellow back and forth of Falcone’s interviews, these scenes in which old allies trade barbs with Buscetta become brutal, venomous recriminations.
While THE TRAITOR is heavy with narrative information (clocking in at a stately 150 minutes), it is notably light on emotional and psychological detail. And while this makes it difficult to discern the perspective Bellocchio views Buscetta from, it does allow Favino’s performance to be almost purely about presence, both in terms of his natural stature and his charismatic line readings. Occasional flashbacks and dream sequences raise more questions than they settle, underlining that this is a film full of bleeding distinctions: between reality and reverie, mafioso and informant, fiction and nonfiction, nobility and mercilessness.
One flashback is instructive. Before Bellocchio shows the Cosa Nostra lined in their cells before the Italian judiciary, the film cuts to Buscetta and family at the zoo, watching a tiger strut in its cage. Instead of a psychological portrait, THE TRAITOR is a study in the symbols of the Cosa Nostra with Buscetta singled out as the potential beginning of the end, or as – at the very least – a key transitional figure.
There are several ways in which the film might encourage comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s superior THE IRISHMAN, but none more so than its handling of time. During the murders of Buscetta’s allies, there’s a timer ticking away, counting up the seconds to the left of the screen. This connects to a remark made during one of Buscetta’s conversations with Falcone, about what they wish for each other after the trial’s completion: “To die in your bed, and as late as possible.” They both know the dangers of life in proximity to the Cosa Nostra, but one isn’t stressed enough: it’s not time running out, but time running on that’s the real problem.