Review: Italian Mafia Drama The Traitor Channels the Chaos, Glam of the ’80s

So much of director Marco Bellocchio’s (Devil in the Flesh, Fists in the Pocket) latest, The Traitor, seems so outrageous and impossible that I had no choice but to believe everything I saw. The film is, in fact, the true story of Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), a made man living in Sicily, who moves to Brazil in the early 1980s in hopes of retiring from the mafia life when Sicily becomes overrun with violence over the heroin trade. Buscetta was not himself a Cosa Nostra crime boss, but he occupied a unique position of respect among the bosses, who came to him for advice, to help negotiate deals and treaties, and general good counsel.

The Traitor
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

After watching from afar as warfare heats up and experiencing the deaths of his sons and brother killed in Palermo, Buscetta begins to fear that he will be next. When he is arrested and brought back to Italy, Buscetta doesn’t recognize the face of the organized crime that he left behind. He feels the members of the Cosa Nostra have betrayed their internal code and made it all about money and drugs, and he makes the unthinkable decision to confess all to Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi) and testify against his former friends and business associates, betraying his vow of silence but clearing his conscience in the process.

The film is not only set in the 1980s, but director Bellocchio gives us the visual sensation of it being made then as well. The costumes, production design, cars, everything on the screen screams that The Traitor is a production of the period in which it’s set, and it adds a layer of authenticity that is critical to the film’s success.

The details of the relationships between the bosses and families are important as each boss confronts Buscetta as he testifies in court against them, one after another. The scene is like no other courtroom drama you’ve ever seen committed to film. It’s a circus in every sense of the word, with caged mafioso in the back of the court hooting, hollering and name calling Buscetta the worst things imaginable. The judges and Buscetta sit at the front, where he takes down each new witness with hard evidence—photos, recordings, you name it.

From a purely historical perspective, The Traitor is magnificent storytelling. Buscetta’s testimony makes it clear that powerful men are going down for decades. In some cases, he sets off a succession of turncoats who see a chance to escape prison time for testimony, and what was once just a circus has become a chaotic free-for-all in turning rat. The Traitor also takes the time to show us Buscetta’s family life that includes the way he must frequently leave his surviving wife and children to be a part of these trials. The film is exhausting at times, with constant, lengthy stretches of yelling, catcalling and gestures that would make your grandmother blush, but it all adds to the deeply immersive experience of this unique Italian production.

The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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