“I am a man of honor,” Tommaso Buscetta insists. It’s a familiar enough assertion for a man in his profession — he describes himself as a “simple soldier” in the Sicilian Cosa Nostra — and one that Mafia-movie fans have heard many times before. The context this time is a little different, though, since Buscetta (who goes by the nickname Masino) invokes his honor to justify his betrayal of the organization he had loyally served for his whole adult life. No omerta for him.
Buscetta, the real-life subject of Marco Bellocchio’s tremendous and meticulous new film, turned on his former colleagues in the 1980s, testifying against them first in interviews with the Italian judge and prosecutor Giovanni Falcone and later in open court. “The Traitor,” anchored by Pierfrancesco Favino’s shrewd, subtle and volcanic lead performance, is less an exploration of the man’s motives than a chronicle of his actions. Bellocchio’s approach to the story is at once coolly objective — the movie is part biopic, part courtroom procedural — and almost feverishly intense. He has a historian’s analytical detachment, a novelist’s compassion for his characters and a citizen’s outrage at the cruelty and corruption that have festered in his country for so long.
Now 80, with a career stretching back to the mid-1960s, Bellocchio has long been preoccupied with the endless, tumultuous, tragicomic question of Italian identity. The dialectic of loyalty and betrayal — within families, local communities, political movements, subcultures and the nation itself — is his great theme, and Masino Buscetta supplies him an aptly contradictory hero.
He’s not an entirely admirable figure, and he doesn’t cooperate with the authorities out of remorse or civic responsibility. After two of his sons are murdered by an upstart Cosa Nostra faction led by Salvatore Riina (Nicola Calì), he wants revenge. He has also been arrested in Brazil (where he was living in luxurious exile with his third wife) and extradited to Italy, which limits his options. Deciding to cooperate with the prosecution of men he had thought of as his brothers, Masino claims to be upholding the values of “the Old Cosa Nostra,” an honorable brotherhood he insists was less ruthless and more principled than the current version.
Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), determined to break the Mafia’s power, dismisses that idea as a myth. His sober, courteous demeanor brings out Masino’s vanity and his natural talkativeness, qualities that help make the government’s case during the Maxi Trial of 1986, a chaotic spectacle that suggests an episode of “Law and Order” directed by Federico Fellini.
The bosses are held in cages in the back of the courtroom, behind ranks of robed lawyers. Masino, in a crisply tailored suit, sits in front of a row of magistrates who try, with mixed success, to preserve a modicum of dignity and decorum. The accused swear and spit, make obscene gestures and lie under oath with breathtaking brazenness. Totuccio Contorno (Luigi Lo Cascio), who joins Masino in testifying against them, sends the proceedings spinning toward farce with his nervous, profane energy.
Though “The Traitor” takes in the comedy and the squalor of Italy’s recent past, its dominant tone isn’t mockery or disgust. It’s a wise, sad, guardedly hopeful account of a few chapters in the endless war between systemic venality and civic decency. Masino’s treason is that he dares to change sides, to ally himself with the modest, almost colorless Falcone against the predatory peacocks of La Cosa Nostra.
Favino, with his brawny, bullish physicality and his thick-cut porterhouse face, is a soulful brute. Bragging that he was always more interested in sex than in power or money, Masino embodies a machismo that is both ruthless and sentimental. Bellocchio admires his bravery and his virility, but doesn’t turn away from his hypocrisy, his opportunism or his cruelty. Without entirely denying his audience the pleasures of the gangster genre — or of his own brash, baroque, sensual cinematic style — he strips away accumulated layers of romance and mystification, producing a vivid, complicated portrait that is also a political parable.
This is hardly a tale of triumph: The Mafia’s assassination of Giovanni Falcone is still shocking, even after more than a quarter century. Nor is it a simple picture of good versus evil. Masino dwells in an ethical gray zone, and his biography is a chiaroscuro of compromise and partial vindication. But “The Traitor” has the glow of truth.