THE TRAITOR (2019) – Review
So, you finally got around to watching (probably streaming) THE IRISHMAN (Bobby, Al, and Joe seemed to be staring right at you every time you opened up the Netflix app)? And you’re ready for another hit (not the “murder” kind) of mob movie epic-ness. Then here’s a flick that takes us back to where “it all began”, the “old country” of Sicily (and it’s boot-shaped neighbor Italy). And, like that other flick, it’s a true story, though the authenticity of Scorsese’s work has been questioned. But, no this one’s legit, a word we don’t usually associate with the “organization”. Like the GODFATHER trilogy, and the former film it spans several decades, although it clocks in at an hour or so less running time than the story of the “house painter”. Unlike him, this story’s main character worked with the feds, spilling the beans (maybe pasta instead). That’s why he was referred to in “certain circles” as THE TRAITOR.
The tale starts with a rather festive occasion, as the main “made men” of Palermo gathered, along with their families, at a swank beach house to split control of the highly lucrative heroin market. There to attend and observe (no access to the big “sit-down” because of a recent incarceration) is Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), AKA Don Masino, along with his third wife Cristina (Maria Fernanda Candido), their kids, and his adult sons from his previous marriages. Concerned that this “truce” will not last, Buscetta relocates his current family (his grown sons remain) to Brazil (with new names, of course). As he feared, the bloody drug turf wars begin. Despite the distance, Buscetta is drawn back in when the Brazilian police (with lots of military muscle) raid his estate and soon extradite him back to Italy. Soon after his arrival Buscetta learns of the violence against his family members. He channels his grief and rage into a big decision: he will co-operate with the authorities. Under house arrest, he spends most of his days interviewed by crusading Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), when not on the phone with his wife, who along with their children is living in America as part of a witness protection deal. Buscetta eventually gets a “roommate”, Totuccio Contorno (Luigi Lo Cascio) who is also talking because of his disgust over the new Cosa Nostra (the men don’t call themselves “Mafia”), who have no “code of honor”. As the arrests pile up, can these men live long enough to “spill the secrets” that will end the mob once and for all?
This sprawling underworld epic is anchored by the assured compelling performance of Favino who brings a nobility to this often brutal street “soldier”. From his first moments in his “disco” suit (right out of Travolta’s closet), he commands the screen, strolling through the big party like an alpha wolf protecting his pack, from the babies to his drug-addled elder son. This continues on into his South American sanctuary, though he shows great wisdom and restraint to protect his loved ones, quieting his wife’s screams that he is really his new false identity. Buscetta resigns himself to serve his time, but then Favino lets us see the cracks in his armor as he ‘s told of the evil done to him by his former friends (his second family). He shows us the change in direction as he lives to take the monsters down and be returned to his wife and kids. Favino even has some fun with his role’s vanity as we see him dabbing black dye into his hair before prison “lights out”. As time changes and his character ages, Favino keeps us riveted. He also has a passionate chemistry with Candido as his devoted spouse. And there’s the friendship, perhaps a “bromance”, with two very different men. To Cascio’s Totuccio he’s the calming big brother, trying to temper his thirst for blood (Cascio is often both scary and funny as his brain can barely keep up with his “machine gun” mouth). The more complex partnering is that of Buscetta’s slowly building alliance with Falcone, played with grit and determination by Alesi. Falcone pushes back hard on his prisoner, rewarding him for his answers, but never getting seduced by his charms or claims of honor reminding Buscetta of the poison he sold that destroyed lives. In the end, there’s begrudging respect that feels earned, as Alesi shows us the heroism in this protector of the public.
Despite our familiarity with the underworld thanks to the many fictitious crime sagas (the town of Corleone is mentioned) director Marco Bellocchio brings great energy and immediacy to the story (he was one of five credited writers). For the early violent sequences, he includes a “countdown” number in the upper left corner of the screen though we’re left to wonder if this denotes the speed of the killings or reflects the general body count during these gang wars of the early 1980s. These scenes are quite chilling especially when robed assassins chase down a priest as he performs mass (guessing this was not part of their “honor code”). The film doesn’t shy away from presenting some of the brutal tactics used by the law (the twin helicopters “persuasion” scene is a stunner). Bellocchio even livens up the usually dry trial sequences, as the caged mobsters at the back of the court heckle and harass judges and witnesses alike (“I must look him in the eye!!”). Most amusing are the sequences set in the states as America is portrayed as a dreary dark place that punishes the Buscetta clan (loved the grocery store with AR-15 at the end of the cereal aisle). Just as effective are the ways that Bellocchio shows the passage of time with Favino without elaborate make-ups or CGI (as in IRISHMAN), but with subtle cosmetics, hairstyles, and padding. And despite the running time, the sense of doom, that death is just moments away (“The Cosa Nostra takes their time”) is maintained (the hit on the highway is a technical P.O.V. marvel). And like the best of this genre, the “made men” aren’t romanticized, especially those at the top that seem to revel in acts of cruelty. They could have assigned an underling, but are compelled to get their hands “dirty”. THE TRAITOR is a memorable true tale of revenge and redemption, showing us how one man can make a big difference.
3.5 Out of 4
THE TRAITOR opens everywhere and screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinemas