Film Review: ‘The Traitor’: The Man Who Took Down the Sicilian Mafia

February 3, 2020 Updated: February 3, 2020
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R | 2h 25min | Biography, Crime, Drama | 31 January 2020 (USA)

Turncoat, snitch, squealer, fink, pentito, stoolie—in underworld circles there are many devious types of characters, but there are no roles that are more maligned than that of the rat.

Through the years, cinema has depicted many an underworld tale, with those told about the Italian Mafia being some of the most popular. And rightfully so. There’s something vicariously enjoyable about watching bad people gradually destroy themselves. It’s a guilty pleasure, so to speak.

The Sicilian Mafia, also known as “La Cosa Nostra,” had a highly regimented structure that was based on the Roman military, with captains, lieutenants, foot soldiers, and the like.

“Omertà” was a code of silence that one would have to swear to abide by, which meant that betraying one’s associates would basically be akin to signing a death warrant.

But what if the betrayer wasn’t dispensed with? What if he were not only to live but also testify against his criminal brethren?

a scene from The Traitor
Pierfrancesco Favino (L) and Fabrizio Ferracane in “The Traitor.” (Sony Pictures Classics)

A Mafia Turncoat

Well-established Italian director Marco Bellocchio has the answers to these questions, and more. His new Mafia film “The Traitor” is about a real-life snitch within La Cosa Nostra.

Tommaso Buscetta (played with vigor by Pierfrancesco Favino: “World War Z,” “Angels & Demons“) starts as a small-time Mafia associate in Palermo, Sicily, who deals mainly in small-time criminal activities. Through the years, he becomes a full mob member.

And through the years, the Sicilian Mafia gets involved in drug smuggling, which, needless to say, is very lucrative for the organization. It also becomes very deadly.

With higher stakes come higher body counts: The film shows the beginning of the Second Mafia War in the early 1980s, which was instigated by the “Boss of Bosses,” Salvatore Riina, head of the Sicilian Mafia. The mob begins murdering not only members of the state government but also the family members and friends of various underworld figures. This unmitigated violence continues for years, and we see how Buscetta falls out of love with the mob after several members of his own family are killed.

Pierfrancesco Favino in the movie The Traitor
Pierfrancesco Favino gives a strong performance in the movie “The Traitor.” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Buscetta becomes so disenchanted that he agrees to inform on the Mafia’s activities to the Italian authorities, specifically uber-righteous, anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi). With the infamous mobster-turned-informant’s help, the authorities are able to indict almost 500 Mafiosi during the precedent-setting Maxi Trial, held in Palermo. Many of the gangsters are eventually convicted.

The Verdict: A Very Good Film

Whereas in most Mafia films, the courtroom drama is saved for the last bit of the film, here it’s all front and center.

The film is mainly focused on Buscetta as he testifies against his former criminal colleagues. Of course, the mob wants the man dead, and there is an almost palpable sense of unease—a feeling as if Buscetta could be taken out at any point during the film’s rather lengthy runtime.

This constant state of dread, combined with the fiery dialogue of mobsters who make their extreme animosity toward Buscetta clear, gives the film’s taut script an almost volcanic subtextual vibe. It’s as if there’s something constantly boiling just beneath the surface, just waiting to explode.

testifying against the mafia
Pierfrancesco Favino as Tommaso Buscetta, testifying against the Mafia. (Sony Pictures Classics)

Of course (no spoilers), some very bad things do indeed happen to some very good men, and the violence is so extreme that sometimes it almost seems cartoonishly absurd, as if what we’re watching is more of a black comedy.

Yet the film is expertly shot and the courtroom drama real. The affectations of the cast are also on point, as are the wardrobe and accouterments that accurately reflect the time.

A portrait of Buscetta is well-constructed, and we learn that he is not only highly charismatic but also quite the ladies’ man. (In real life, he had several wives and numerous children with different ladies.) He’s a flawed individual of complexity and contradictions; sometimes you can see the abject evil that he’s capable of, and at other times, his compassion and warmth.

Bellocchio’s film (he also wrote the screenplay along with co-writer Valia Santella) is anything but black and white with many layers of nuance.

“The Traitor” is an outstanding cinematic experience that shows audiences what happens when highly skilled filmmakers coalesce with a fantastic cast.

‘The Traitor’
Director: Marco Bellocchio
Starring: Pierfrancesco Favino, Luigi Lo Cascio, Fausto Russo Alesi
Rated: R
Running Time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 31, 2020
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

Ian Kane is a filmmaker and author based out of Los Angeles. To see more, visit DreamFlightEnt.com or contact him at Twitter.com/ImIanKane