Imagine The Irishman done right — made by a filmmaker whose reputation has not overrun his artistry. That would be Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor (Il Traditore), which chronicles the true story of Sicilian mafia boss Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), who exposed the workings of the Cosa Nostra in Italy’s 1986 Maxi Trials, the country’s largest round-up of the criminal organization. The trial becomes The Traitor’s remarkable centerpiece.
Bellocchio reports the story of Buscetta’s awakened conscience through feverish chronological memories of his sons and family members killed over heroin trade feuds. Unlike The Irishman’s totally fabricated historical fantasies, these drug wars evoke historical terror. They’re staged like cinematic opera — a pageant of bullet-point, documentary-style massacres that verges on existential comedy. The title alludes to Verdi’s Il Trovatore, but this is anti-romantic. Buscetta’s complicated moral sense (unlike the cipher DeNiro played in The Irishman) never hides behind the quasi-Catholicism that has become Scorsese’s dubious routine.
Modern Italian Catholicism, a consistent Bellocchio subject (In the Name of the Father, My Mother’s Smile), contributes to his understanding of how culture works. He sees religion and politics as means that sustain people’s beliefs as well as their illusions. Buscetta’s survival instinct and sense of guilt drive him to Brazil, away from the warfare, watching the hostilities from afar yet unable to escape the long reach of law and treachery. When Buscetta gets extradited, he returns to Italy as a state’s witness. The narrative deepens with Buscetta’s interrogation by Judge Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi); each man lays out his personal ethical dilemma. An unexpected but fateful brotherhood develops.
During the Maxi Trials, set inside a Palermo prison and makeshift courtroom where the made-men Buscetta betrayed can simultaneously observe the proceedings, The Traitor takes on a surprising theatricality. Bellocchi is both aghast and bemused by the psychology behind the cultural phenomenon of Mafia crime. The Traitor becomes a spectacle of men, on either side of iron bars, vocalizing their anger and shouting vendettas: atavistic rage in a cage, that cage erected from the history of Italian civilization and its discontents.
As one of the last great classical filmmakers — but also a self-aware modernist — Bellocchio updates the mob-movie genre past its trashy American models. (None of Scorsese’s innumerable, unrepentant crime-loving films have ever been so daring.) The cycles of violence and revenge, cowardice and ruthlessness in the film’s exuberant opening feels like a mob-movie parody, but it is Bellocchio’s commentary on the genre’s stranger-than-fiction conventions, challenging the audience’s now-degraded responses. Everything people love about GoodFellas — the machismo, the violence, the sentimentality, the sense of grandstanding revelation — happens in quotations marks that make you rethink the clichés as moral evasions.
Bellocchio’s flamboyant art is also moral. Scorsese and his fans get caught up in audacity and bravado, which allows them to ignore the degradation or enjoy it with a shrug of smirky indifference. (Coppola critiqued this attitude, also going back to operatic roots, in his revisionist The Godfather, Part III, which is the reason crime fans resent it; they prefer how TV’s The Sopranos normalized decadence.) But The Traitor rampages through monstrous events, including revenge killings of many family members; Buscetta’s sensual, luxury-loving wife, played by Maria Fernanda Candido, endures an especially grandiose assault. These build the case for Biscotti’s disillusionment and his decision to perform what his former associates see as betrayal.
The meaning of treason is in flux these days — encouraged and celebrated by U.S. media elites seeking to maintain social control through easily swayed popular opinion. But Bellocchio views Buscetta’s treason morally — an insight derived from his revelations in Vincere (2000). That political bio-pic recalled Italy’s refracted view of Benito Mussolini and the woman, Ida Dalser, he abandoned. But, essentially, Vincere explored Il Duce’s cult of personality — a still timely theme that Bellocchio intuitively relates to this century’s still unexamined Obama cult.
Vincere’s bold derangement of perspectives — both Italy’s national hopes and Ida Dalser’s private longings — presents an allegory for what has unmistakably led to the self-justifying immorality of modern progressives. Bellocchio, like most Italian film masters of the Sixties, including his peer Bernardo Bertolucci, began with leftist sentiments but grew out of them. He made art of his disillusionment in such masterworks as Leap into the Void; Good Morning, Night; My Mother’s Smile; Dormant Beauty; and The Wedding Director.
Bellocchio always mixes politics, religion, psychology, and culture. He doesn’t get trapped in shallow ethnography like Scorsese does. His actors Favino, Alesi, and Candido embody vivid modern Italian types yet are shorn of false glamour. As a result of Bellocchio’s moral reckoning, their fates carry a jolt.
The Traitor, this year’s first great movie, counters the moral subversion of Netflix’s The Irishman campaign. By inquiring into the morality of the gangster film, Bellocchio is not a traitor to his art.