‘The Traitor’ Film Review: Sturdy Mafia Biopic Loses Something in Translation

Cannes 2019: Actor Pierfrancesco Favino delivers an exquisite movie star turn

The old dictum “context is key” never felt truer than it did when Marco Bellocchio’s “The Traitor” made its world premiere on Thursday at the Cannes Film Festival.

As the first screening came to close, members of the Italian press greeted the film with effusive cheers, and that response left many of their international counterparts somewhat confused — or maybe just jealous — about what hint of genius they saw in this sturdy if somewhat uninspiring Mafia biopic.

Well, one caveat there: As Tommaso Buscetta, the real-life turncoat who helped put 366 different Mafiosi in jail, actor Pierfrancesco Favino really does bring the goods, delivering an exquisite movie-star turn as a godfather whose cocksure magnetism can’t quite hide the pain in his eyes.

In an unusually strong year for male leads (and a celebrity-friendly one, too, with Antonio Banderas, the Tarantino boys and even Xavier Dolan), Favino could easily take the festival’s Best Actor prize come closing night on Saturday. Whatever the case may be, this standout role will no doubt raise the actor’s profile in the U.S. after the film’s release by Sony Pictures Classics. He’s landed smaller roles in Hollywood films for the past decade or so, but don’t be surprised to see him chewing scenery as the lead villain in a Bond film in a few years’ time.

Still, if we’re already looking forward, that’s because looking back to “The Traitor” doesn’t inspire so much. An amply budgeted, continent-spanning portrait of Cosa Nostra conflict spread over a period of 20 years, it basically functions as gangster morality tale that explores whether a cold-blooded killer can ever truly find redemption.

When we pick up on Buscetta, the so-called “boss of two worlds” has taken refuge in Rio, where he’s hoping to wait out the bloody turf war that’s been decimating the ranks of the Sicilian Mafia. The made man carries himself as a kind of wounded lion, headstrong and hurt that all those around him have abandoned the strict codes that once-upon-a-time governed mob life.

So it’s no surprise than when he is apprehended and extradited, and when he learns that his two sons fell in the conflict, he decides to go where no mad men dared go before — right into the judge’s quarters, ready to sing like a bird.

The judge is Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), a real figure who oversaw the most extensive prosecution of mob figures in Italian history. “The Mafia had a beginning and it will have an end,” he says at one point. Of course, the film eventually works its way to Falcone’s own end, but the scene where the magistrate’s life draws to a close came as no surprise to any of the Italians in the Cannes audience.

Spanning from 1980-2000, the film deals in very recent Italian history and depicts the plot’s culturally seismic events with a level of gravitas and mythology that sometimes gets in the way of dramatic satisfaction. Bellocchio’s playing with fire here, and he knows it, so he approaches the material with a handsomely mounted if somewhat distant style, all the better to give the experienced viewer room to bring their own memories to the forefront. And to those without the same triggers and cultural cues? Well, there’s always Wikipedia.

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