“For Italians, the Mafia is not a myth.” Those were the words of the Italian actor Pierfrancesco Favino last fall to the New York Film Festival audience that had come to see Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor in which he stars. Favino plays Tommaso Buscetta, the Mafia informant whose revelations led to the Maxi Trial of the 1980s, which decimated the Italian mob.
The exquisite irony of The Traitor comes from the fact that Buscetta is very much in thrall to the myth of the Cosa Nostra (as he insists on calling it). And in destroying what he felt had taken its place, he himself became a myth. The Traitor—released on May 12 on DVD and streaming platforms—is an absolutely smashing movie, a big, handsomely made, engrossing story that deepens emotionally as it goes on. In almost sixty years of directing, this may be the closest Bellocchio has ever come to a piece of popular moviemaking. But the director, as he showed in the 2009 Vincere, isn’t afraid of overwhelming, nearly operatic gestures. You might be able to see an assassination scene coming, but you can’t brace yourself for the way Bellocchio films it.
At the time Buscetta decided to cooperate, the Mafia he knew, “men of honor,” as he calls them, had been replaced by the Corleonesi, determined to control the lucrative heroin trade in Palermo. There seemed to be no bounds to their viciousness, and no mercy for the family members of their rivals, from children to grandparents. We see some of those murders briefly in the movie’s first half-hour or so, each one adding to the tally kept by a counter in lower left-hand corner of the screen. Bellocchio shows us only five or six killings; the numbers on screen roll into the hundreds. Buscetta insists that in the Cosa Nostra he pledged his life to, families, children were off limits. A large part of Buscetta’s decision to inform seems to come from a feeling that his blood family, his third wife Christine (Maria Fernanda Candido, who has a wonderful presence, proud and tense at the same time), and his children, is owed more loyalty than his Mafia family. (There is also the fact that his son Benedetto, has become hooked on the heroin the Mafia sells.) Buscetta has to betray one family in order to save another. And though his name, for a while, became synonymous with traitor in Italy, Bellocchio, speaking to me last fall in New York, through a translator, said, “When Buscetta decides to collaborate to defend himself, and especially his family, it’s a principal deeply felt throughout Italian society.” When he confronts the men he’s informed on at the Maxi Trial, he has no trouble telling them they are the traitors, not him.
Buscetta’s vision of the Mafia as sullied by ruthless thugs is romantic bullshit, of course, and the chief prosecutor, Giovanni Falcone (later murdered in retaliation and played here by Fausto Russo Alesi) tells him that in their first interview. Falcone has seen too many killings to believe the people behind them are men of honor. Buscetta isn’t wrong that the Corleonesi are something different from the tradition he was raised in. He’s mistaken in thinking that tradition was a good thing. But this doesn’t prevent deep respect, and even something close to love, from growing between these two men. Bellocchio has a wonderful ability to make simple gestures carry weight, and the ritual of sharing cigarettes that begins in Buscetta and Falcone’s first meeting carries over like a tradition with which old friends greet each other.
And so for Bellocchio The Traitor becomes a question of how you honor a man’s obvious bravery, a bravery that routed out entrenched and malignant corruption, without ignoring the totality of the man.
Part of that honesty starts in not pretending that Buscetta isn’t an enormously attractive figure. Favino possesses the physical presence and charisma that has always characterized the movie’s great masculine stars. He’s a bull of a man, ruggedly good looking, and so confident he doesn’t need to swagger. In the extended courtroom scenes where Buscetta has to endure the insults and denials of his former comrades, Favino plays him as an expert nemesis, one who has much too much self-possession and class to be rattled by these scummy little men. Next to the mafiosi in their tacky polos and windbreakers, Buscetta, in his immaculately tailored suits, is elegant. He looks out of place among them, just as he looks out of place in witness protection pushing a shopping cart through a Walmart in Salem, New Hampshire. (Buscetta died in witness protection in Florida in 2000. His widow and children still live in the program in the United States.)
That serves a dual purpose, allowing Favino’s star presence to shine while making a bigger point about this mob. When Favino told the New York Film Festival audience that the Mafia wasn’t a myth for Italians, it was perhaps an implicit criticism of the audiences who’ve swallowed that myth. Francis Ford Coppola has frequently, and wrongly, been accused of romanticizing the mob even though the first two Godfather films remain cinema’s greatest epic vision of corruption. What Coppola achieved is very different from what you might call the goombahs-in-silk pictures, the ones selling the myth Favino spoke of. Their epitome is Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, an entertaining and flamboyant crock as seduced by its vision of mob life as its hero. When Bellocchio opens The Traitor with a large celebration in an oceanside Palermo palazzo (a peace treaty has supposedly been signed between the warring factions), I couldn’t help but think of the ball that ends Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, perhaps the lushest sustained sequence in any movie ever. And then you notice the smallness of these men of honor, the shabbiness that clings to them, the ludicrousness of hoods conducting themselves as if they were princes, and you know that Bellocchio isn’t about to be suckered.
But when has he ever been suckered? Of the great European filmmakers who emerged in the 1960s, Bellocchio, now eighty, is close to the last one standing. Every few years, the members of Godard’s cult emerge to tell us that his latest gnomic scrawlings are proof of his continued vitality. But with the exception of the late Louis Malle, I think none has demonstrated a worldview that has grown in the scope and depth that Bellocchio’s has. He has attained the status of a master. Though his brilliant movies of the last seventeen years—Good Morning, Night, Vincere, Dormant Beauty, and now The Traitor—are all specific to Italy, their interrogations of history and of the prime institutions of democratic Western society—government, religion, the law—have shown a restless refusal to be satisfied with cant.
I asked Bellocchio how, as a politically engaged filmmaker, he keeps from sacrificing psychology and understanding. “The artist does come after the politician in me,” he said. “When politics was proposing a radical action we believed in politics and tried to represent it. Today politics doesn’t really offer that kind of inspiration.” The radicalism he’s speaking of was there in his first films, Fists in the Pocket (1965) and China Is Near (1967), pictures where the savagery he showed toward the bourgeois monsters who populated them was all the more disconcerting because of how deeply controlled the movies were. Luis Buñuel once called his and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou “a passionate call to murder.” Bellocchio’s films have also been considered calls to murder. No one who has ever seen Fists in the Pocket can forget sullen-faced Lou Castel pushing his blind mother over a cliff, seemingly on the spur of the moment. This scene is to art films what Richard Widmark pushing the wheelchair-bound Mildred Dunnock down a flight of stairs in Kiss of Death is to noir. “I think then,” Bellocchio told me, “what prevailed in me was kind of an anarchical anger in which destructive tendencies prevailed and I don’t mean to say that I’m more constructive today. My anarchical intentions and anger at the patriarchy are still there. Today to make a film like that the same way would be fake because I don’t feel the same way.”
Looking at his recent work, you can’t imagine either the left or the right being comfortable with Good Morning, Night (2003), his film of former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro’s 1978 kidnapping and eventual assassination at the hands of the Red Brigades. Moro, a leader of the conservative Christian Democrats, was about to announce a plan to give the Italian Communists, then the largest Communist party in Europe, a share in power. For the right, this was an unthinkable arrangement (the English writer Peter Robb claims that Henry Kissinger screamed in anger when Moro told him of this); the far left couldn’t see it as anything but acceding to corruption. Bellocchio’s film shares the view of the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia in his book The Moro Affair that no real attempt was made to find Moro or rescue him (Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, also a Christian Democrat, refused all offers of negotiation and even pleas from Moro himself in letters delivered by his kidnappers) because his elimination served both sides. Moro’s murdered body was found seven weeks after he was kidnapped in the trunk of a red Renault. Bellocchio ends the film with footage of the memorial service presided over by Pope Paul VI and attended by government officals. None of Moro’s family attended.
Good Morning, Night is a vision of political action divorced from humanity or sense, a world in which the mainstream parties do not stoop to murder but are happy to countenance it if it serves their ends. The film’s main source is the memoir by Anna Laura Braghetti, one of Moro’s kidnappers. In the movie, Maya Sansa plays a character, based on Braghetti, who is beginning to have doubts about the group’s actions. But she does nothing to save Moro and, like Mussolini in Vincere, or the politicians using a right-to-life case for their political gain in Dormant Beauty, she’s condemned by her inability to see the human wreckage she causes. It’s Moro (played by Roberto Herlitzka, whose weathered and gentle face haunts the movie) who, despite his political differences with the director, earns Bellocchio’s affection.
Moro is the tragic hero of Good Morning, Night, just as Tommaso Buscetta is the hero of The Traitor. He’s a man capable of feeling, and Bellocchio’s affection for him is palpable. That doesn’t mean Bellocchio is blind to Buscetta’s past or that the movie buys into a myth of redemption. (How could perhaps the most furiously anticlerical filmmaker since Buñuel buy into the notion of redemption?) In the final scenes Bellocchio settles us into the warm bath of affection that grew between Buscetta and the cops who guarded him, only to bring us up short by ending the movie with a cold slap in the face. But just as an actor like Favino plays to our primal pleasure, a character like Buscetta plays to our hunger for stories of bravery, especially bravery done in the name of a greater good. Bellocchio understands that no matter what Buscetta has done, he is not a small man. The triumph of The Traitor, especially in a time when our political conversations are being reduced to simplistic notions of purity and corruption, and when our art is supposed to follow suit, is Bellocchio’s rejection of simplistic celebration and equally simplistic debunking. In the hands of a political artist, of which Bellocchio may be the best currently working in the movies, this is the invaluable ability to leave both sides dissatisfied.
Charles Taylor is the author of Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s. He lives in New York.