Tuesday 28 July 2020

Let them all talk: "The Traitor"

COVID-19 hasn't been good for much all told, but it has got Marco Bellocchio, one of the last Sixties auteurs standing, into multiplexes that have been starved for new releases. The unexpected prominence being afforded to The Traitor might be considered reflective of a shift in this director's filmmaking that has allowed him to survive for the best part of six decades. Having initially positioned himself as a provocateur in the Godard or Pasolini mode with his 1965 breakthrough Fists in the Pocket, Bellocchio has pivoted in recent times to reckon with Italian popular history, detailing the charge of the Red Brigade in 2003's Good Morning, Night and then going further back in time to suggest what it was to be Mussolini's girl in 2009's Vincere. It may be impossible to be a socially aware Italian cineaste and not sign off on a Mob movie at some point. Bellocchio's new film, a sturdy, muscular entry in the subgenre, revisits the Maxi trial of 1986, for which Tommaso Buscetta (played here by Pierfrancesco Favino), a lowly footsoldier with the Corleone clan, was recalled from self-imposed exile in Rio to testify against his former employers, in so doing becoming the worst of all things to a Mafioso: a snitch. Over the film's two-and-a-half hours, Bellocchio sets himself the task of getting us to think - and getting a local audience to rethink - about the extent to which Buscetta could be faulted for his actions.

If The Traitor deviates notably from what's come before, it lies in its steadfast refusal of any romanticism in its description of the Mob life. Though the film opens with a swirling social function, it's not a Coppola-esque show of respectability, rather a sitdown called to divide up Palermo's heroin supply; in the course of the evening, Tommaso finds his own son, Benedetto (Gabriele Cicirello), shooting up on an adjacent beach. Here's a wedding of cause and effect, a demonstration of how closely this activity hits to home. Death itself follows hard on its heels, witnessed by a relentless bodycount ticker, an acceleration of those captions Scorsese sporadically flashed up on screen during The Irishman. Bellocchio enters this field under no illusion as to the ways power is maintained and consolidated in Southern Italy; within minutes, we are reminded that the profession of gangster is not one that offers secure prospects, easy exits or a comprehensive retirement plan. Buscetta spends the first hour of the film on the run, glancing nervily behind him as he flees: in a nicely satirical touch that chimes with the title, Bellocchio shows him hiding among a crowd in a bar cheering on Brazil against Italy in the 1982 World Cup. Yet when his door is finally kicked down in the early hours of the morning, it's not by assassins but cops executing a drug warrant, leading to his extradition and an especially fraught, public homecoming. Just when he thought he was out, the authorities pulled him back in.

This isn't the only place where you sense Bellocchio attempting a light form of mob-movie subversion. It's not that the threat to Buscetta's life recedes exactly, more that the film enters a more leisurely mode with the introduction of the mobster's interrogator-confessor Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), a judge who recognises his prisoner's worth and accordingly handles him with care, passing him cigarettes along with a bicycle to ride around the corridors of his holding facility, and dye for his greying sideburns. Bellocchio is interested in the role and psychology of the informant in a way the Scorsese of GoodFellas, freezeframing on Henry Hill to spare him from having to break his vow of silence, wasn't really. Favino - a familiar screen face, made more Clarkson-ish yet via retro styling - plays Buscetta as a man using his time in custodial limbo to take stock, and arriving at the conclusion that he took his oath to a very different Cosa Nostra, one that wasn't so ruthless as to profit from the sale of opiates to kids. (This Mob aren't gravely different from all those other cigar-puffing, besuited capitalists making a killing in the 1980s.) Whether or not you buy this idea of Buscetta as a man of too much honour, it pushes The Traitor into interesting new territory: here's a film that views the Mafia not as some monolithic structure, but as an organisation that changes according to the personalities and outlook of the men at the top. Buscetta, a self-confessed ladies' man, is on his third wife, as the film joins him; one reason he admits he wants out is a fundamental difference of opinion with the boss who insists it's "better to be in command than to fuck".

His mistake - what makes him such a compelling anti-hero - was to assume that he could bring the whole house of cards down singlehandedly, when at best his testimony was just a way in. Along with honour and bravery, Bellocchio's camera sees in Buscetta deposits of arrogance (he boasts of fathering eight children), vanity (dark glasses, dyed hair), along with the complacency that must follow from having some small part of the world at your feet for so long. Trace elements of all of the above are visible throughout Favino's rocksolid performance, one reason The Traitor never has to labour to make its points or highlight this story's ironies and ambiguities. Instead, Bellocchio shifts with skill and fluency through the tale's various phases: the quasi-parodic business in Palermo, subtler interactions with the Judge, and the grand opera of the trial itself, with its cacophony of competing voices and horrific, farcical twists and turns. (If we feel sorry for anyone, it may be for the judges handed the thankless task of presiding over a media circus, with made men hollering from the cells at the back of the room, and a star witness upfront throwing out pocketfuls of dirty laundry.) It's big-picture cinema, but also great theatre, and the highpoint of The Traitor's efforts to return recent history to full life. But it's not the end, as Buscetta miscalculated it would be. In the second half, all bets are off again: this little man intersects not once but twice with no less a figure than Giulio Andreotti - undergoing his own downfall - and we come to fear any time any character gets behind the wheel of a car. It's long and busy - not unlike a miniseries condensed into a single sit - but also a Mob movie that keeps its audience on edge to the very end, in sympathy with its anxious central figure. If that agitation earns Bellocchio a late-career hit, it'll be well deserved indeed.

The Traitor is now playing in cinemas nationwide, and streaming via Curzon and the BFI.

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