Veteran director Marco Bellochio, decades into his career, is still grappling with questions of existentialism: building a sense of order in a world of disorder, through one’s own moral code and logic, however twisted. His latest film Il traditore (The Traitor) follows Tommaso Buscetta, a Cosa Nostra soldier who tries to leave the mafia lifestyle, is pulled back in, and is forced to become an informant to the state, revealing the countless names and crimes of his former associates. He sees himself not as a traitor, but actually a savior to the Cosa Nostra and the way of life that he was brought up in, and continues to champion.
It is not a film that shies away from exploring all sides and perspectives of the Cosa Nostra, however challenging: there is of course the violence, the crime, the intimidation; but also its role in protecting the lower classes, and the supportive role it can take in communities otherwise without aid.
Buscetta believes in the Cosa Nostra, and what it stands for. The support infrastructure of a community in need, to him, offsets the violence and chaos it otherwise perpetuates. He stands for its rules of operation: keeping wives and children out of it, no drug trafficking. His justification for becoming an informant is that this code of honor is broken, and being the honorable man he sees himself as, he has no choice but to stand up for it.
What follows is a flurry of courtroom drama, from defendants acting out in court, to betrayals and revelations coming to the surface. Il traditore is often very exciting, though no less troubling; Buscetta learns one of his closest allies, Pippo Calo, was instrumental in the death of his two oldest sons. From there, Buscetta stays committed to what he’s started, and is driven all the way to the top, reaching state officials in Roma.
In addition to the moral complexities of a man fighting to keep the Costa Nostra up to his moral standard, the film is challenging just to keep up with all the names and faces of characters. The main family and key antagonists were easy enough to follow, but as the trials and interrogations continued one, names of other collaborators would come up, and they’d be brought to trial – and leaving me unclear whether I was supposed to recognize them, or if this was a new face in the film. Perhaps this was part of Bellochio’s intent, creating a sense of disclarity and confusion not unlike all the layers stacked into the Cosa Nostra, but it left me feeling slightly disconnected from the action as the film continued.
The plot mechanics aside, the film ultimately comes together in a thematically satisfying, though unsurprisingly troubling, act of violence. After all the trials and convictions, Il traditore returns to an older Buscetta, alone, falling asleep on the roof of his witness protection program-provided home, still paranoid that somebody’s after him, whether a rival gangster, a Cosa Nostra loyalist, or someone from the state, and sets himself on a lawn chair with an AK rifle nestled beside him. In a dream, or perhaps a flashback, we return to Buscetta during his prime as a soldier. As an early exploration of his moral code, he explains that he couldn’t commit a hit on a man who stood behind his son, violating the Cosa Nostra code of bringing families into business. Decades later, the now-adult son has gotten married, leaving the father alone and now vulnerable to the long-awaited hit. Even after everything he’s been through, Buscetta is still Cosa Nostra, and maintains loyalty to the code and lifestyle he’s always believed in.
Screened at the 31st Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival in 2020.