The Traitor review

There’s always a danger stepping into a genre where masterpieces have already been firmly established. Make a boxing movie and you’re up against either Rocky or Raging Bull, and however hard you try, you’re going to be under the shadows of the established canon. So perhaps the oddest thing about Marco Bellocchio’s mafia film The Traitor is how it pretends a certain saga by Francis Ford Coppola never existed. This might have made it easier for the director to sleep at night, but it also helps make the film falter.

The Traitor is a true-life tale of Tommaso Buscetta, a Sicilian don who turned on his colleagues spawning the “maxi trial” (or maxiprocesso) in which dozens of accused were charged in a giant sweep meant to break the back of the cosa nostra.

Pierfrancesco Favino plays Buscetta, and given the 1970s and ’80s setting, ends up evoking larger-than-life characters like Tony Montana in Scarface or even more recent representation of drug kingpins in Narcos. Thematically, this film actually owes lots to that streaming counterpart; they’re both heightened true-crime stories told through various flashbacks which demonstrate both the process of the criminal system and its underworld, as well as the myriad of characters that shape the narratives.

At first it’s a challenge to keep all the names in play, despite each character helpfully getting a chyron at the outset (harder to catch, of course, when juggling subtitles as well). Still, after a while it doesn’t matter so much who’s who, just that two sides are battling, bodies are falling, and the end result is betrayal and defiance to try and put a stop to the bloodshed. At its core this is a story where, despite rules to keep some honor amongst thieves, the end result is still cold-hearted revenge, drawing Buscetta to eschew the protection afforded those that have already betrayed their oaths to the greater cause.

Given all this complexity, it’s again surreal that the film doesn’t once allude to pop culture to help make sense of things. We’ve got criminals from Corleone, no less, and yet when patiently explaining to audiences the strategic and hierarchical breakdown, the characters in the film act like they’re in a world where The Godfather never existed. Criminals, particularly Mafiosi, are notoriously drawn to their fictionalized accounts – just look at how on The Sopranos the characters gleefully quoted their pop-culture alter egos. It’s as if those in The Traitor, just like the director, are pretending somehow the film that will eventually make this one seem quite small and silly doesn’t exist at all.

Given that much of The Traitor is devoted to the mass trial, it’s here, unfortunately, that the film goes from fine character study to preposterous courtly proceedings. The antics of judge and accused alike are so operatic, it’s obscene. The stereotypes on display – gesticulating hands, twirling of mustaches, and chaos embodying incompetence – is so offensively obnoxious and drawing on negative stereotypes that in a similar movie set in the U.S., it would be protested by Italian Anti-Defamation Leagues. The antics make Kevin Costner-style histrionics seem tame, diminishing not only the impact of the film, but trivializing the nature of the proceedings themselves.

Again, just look to Godfather II for how it could (well, should) be done, where the senatorial hearings are defined by a supreme tension, and how what’s being said is merely superficial, and where the subterfuge and deceit is an undercurrent to the posturing of those on the podium from both prosecution and defense alike. This is operatic, sure, but not every note is screeched at full volume. The Traitor, instead, simply bangs away like a gavel, with childish interruptions that infantilize all members of the proceedings.

It’s clear that the story of Buscetta is one ripe for telling, so it’s all the more unfortunate the opportunity was squandered. The central performance is sympathetic, but it’s made in a sea of nonsense that makes the rest of it more ridiculous than anything. The Traitor is a traitor to the possibilities of its storyline, a hackneyed courtroom and crime drama that squanders its opportunity to add to the genre rather than just reminding us in every frame how other stories which have done what’s being attempted here pull it off in infinitely better ways.

/Film Rating: 4 out of 10

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About the Author

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor of ThatShelf.com, Features Editor at DTK Magazine and a critic for HighDefDigest.