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The Traitor (Il Traditore) ★★★1/2

Better than "The Irishman"


This latest entry in Mafia-inspired cinema (“we’re not the Mafia, we’re “La Cosa Nostra,” says the main character) is a more nuanced psychological portrait than those in more notable films, including Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” Like Scorsese, prolific Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio focuses on one man, in this case Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), the first of the Sicilian mob to turn “pentito” (“penitent”) or informer. Buscetta insists he is not an informer, that it’s the Cosa Nostra that has changed, not his loyalty to the organization he joined decades earlier.

This latest entry in Mafia-inspired cinema is a more nuanced psychological portrait than those in more notable films, including Scorsese’s “The Irishman.”

Based on a true story and one that most Italians know in detail, Bellocchio presents Buscetta as highly principled. Besides asserting that he’s neither an informer nor part of a larger Mafia, Buscetta describes himself as “a man of dignity.” It’s only when the head of the Corleone family, Totò Riina, starts having children and distant relatives killed that Buscetta decides to talk.

"The Traitor" is based on a true story, one that most Italians know in detail.

Talk he does, to the revered (except by the Sicilian Mafia) organized-crime-fighting judge, Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), who was assassinated by the Mafia after he turned his attention from Sicily to the bigger fish in Rome. Falcone so skillfully nets Buscetta that we never see the precise moment at which he turns pentito. When Falcone offers Buscetta an opened pack of cigarettes, Buscetta takes it, saying he never would have taken an unopened pack, as if that would have been a bribe (such principles in this dark world!). Much impressed by the judge’s intellect and integrity, Buscetta later acknowledges, “I loved Falcone.”

There’s an element of the Theater of the Absurd in Bellocchio’s telling of the story.

There’s also an element of the Theater of the Absurd in Bellocchio’s telling of the story, or perhaps that atmosphere is characteristic of Italy’s criminal courtrooms. The mob defendants are caged together at the back of the large, semi-circular hall that is the courtroom, and they freely smoke cigars, yell out expletives, and in one case, strip naked. Totuccio Contorno (Luigi Lo Cascio), a buddy of Buscetta’s, who also turned pentito, speaks colorfully in his native Sicilian dialect, to the dismay of the court officials who can’t understand him, adding another element of comedy to this tragedy.


Buscetta may be principled, but he’s also vain, arrogant, and self-aggrandizing. While Riina cares principally about La Cosa Nostra, the organization, Buscetta proudly admits that he, a soldato semplice (“simple soldier”) in the mob, places a higher value on his relationships with women. He’s shown painting his hair black while in prison, ordering fellow inmates out of the prison dormitory so he can have sex, and there’s a reference to the State paying for a facelift. He tells Falcone that because of his leadership qualities, people will do what he tells them to, and says publicly, “I am a legend.”


Bellocchio draws the audience into admiring this man, whose testimony put more than 300 people in jail, many for life sentences (there is no death penalty in Italy), only to undermine this “hero” in the end, gradually revealing his vanity, his lies, and a murder this “simple soldier” commits on the orders of La Cosa Nostra’s “Commission.”

Bellocchio’s film, which was Italy’s submission for 2019 Best Foreign Language Feature, is more entertaining and complex—even for Americans—than Scorsese’s.

In interviews, Bellocchio, an award-winning director of more than 50 films, has said that he doesn’t make movies for an international audience; that “Il Traditore” was made for Italians, who are deeply familiar with the people and events of this story. But Buscetta is a more interesting figure than the passive Frank Sheeran, the Irish hitman for Jimmy Hoffa, and Bellocchio’s film, which was Italy’s submission for 2019 Best Foreign Language Feature, is more entertaining and complex—even for Americans—than Scorsese’s.

Date: 2019

Director: Marco Bellocchio

Starring: Pierfrancesco Favino, Luigi Lo Cascio, Fausto Russo Alesi, Nicola Calì

Languages: Italian, Sicilian, Portuguese, English; subtitled in English

Runtime: 145 minutes

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