Almost an hour into Marco Bellocchio’s “The Traitor” — a lively but scattershot and exasperating biopic about Tommaso Buscetta, the first Sicilian mob boss to become an informant for the authorities — the film’s charismatic protagonist (Pierfrancesco Favino) tells an interrogator a story about one of the first men he was ever assigned to kill. Bellocchio then cuts to a brief flashback that offers us more about his subject than the rest of this two-and-a-half hour film combined. The young Buscetta sees his target across a courtyard, and his target sees him. Knowing that Buscetta is there to kill him, the man takes his baby son into his arms for protection, hoping that his assassin wouldn’t risk endangering the life of an innocent child. Buscetta, a dignified man who sincerely believes his beloved Cosa Nostra was once a society of honor, can’t bring himself to take the shot.
His intended victim knows that he has only been granted a temporary reprieve, so he stays near his son as much as possible over the following years. He watches the baby with rare enthusiasm, he walks the boy to school when he comes of age, and he vigilantly helps the kid to grow into a fine young man during his teenage years; in a time and place where most dads are either absent or dead, this guy becomes a (petrified) rock in his child’s life. All because he sees Buscetta’s shadow around every corner. The story cuts off abruptly, only for Bellocchio to pick up the thread much later, but its message is clear: People can change their ways — for better, and for good — but their demons may never forget what they’ve done.
If that episode doesn’t have much basis in fact, it nevertheless typifies a film that’s always at its best when it takes leave of the historical record and digs into the emotional bedrock of what inspired Buscetta to betray the only life he’d ever known. Alas, Bellocchio isn’t able to crack that brittle surface very often, as the legendary Italian auteur’s (“Fists in the Pocket,” “Vincere”) latest film loses steam after its subject is captured at the end of the first act. Once “The Traitor” earns its title, the movie is overwhelmed by legal intrigue and mafia infighting, and flattened into a repetitive and somewhat impenetrable courtroom drama.
Italian viewers familiar with these events might find more of a foothold than Bellocchio makes available to the rest of his audience — and even at the age of 78, the director’s boisterous spirit is still evident in every frame, especially as he depicts the Italian court system like a drunken soap opera at the Coliseum — but his film covers too much ground to navigate any of it with real intention. Only in its margins does “The Traitor” compellingly explore Buscetta’s memory; by the time the film ends, the man is as much of a stranger to us as he was when it started.
Not that any of the blame for that can be laid at Favino’s feet. The actor (who’s complemented his Italian film career with English-language work in films like “World War Z” and “The Catcher Was a Spy”), is a charismatic and intriguing force of nature as Buscetta. A subdued bull of a man who vaguely resembles a more thoughtful version of Vincent Pastore’s character on “The Sopranos,” Favino’s Buscetta is a natural leader who may not be in the right line of work.
It’s not that he’s a softy or a saint or someone who’s afraid of getting his hands dirty, it’s just that he isn’t convinced that business should be a matter of life or death. “You can’t take money with you to the grave,” he often grumbles. Later, the lifelong womanizer puts it even more bluntly: “I’d rather fuck than command.” The film’s most telling scene — another flashback — finds Buscetta getting ready to enjoy a conjugal visit in a massive prison dormitory that’s been cleared out for his pleasure. When he notices an old man dead in his bed on the other side of the room, Buscetta covers the corpse’s face with a blanket before attending to his guest. That’s just the kind of guy he is.
When the film begins in the early 1980s, Buscetta is already having doubts about his retirement plan. His fantasy is to die in his bed as an old man, but the new breed of Corleonesi mafiosos is becoming more savage by the day — not even women, children, and distant relatives of their rivals are safe — and our protagonist doesn’t like that. There’s a whole mess of worries tucked inside the folds of his face (Bellocchio keeps track of the brewing mafia war with an on-screen body count), and Favino keeps them hidden from the world even he peeks down for a glimpse at them himself. A mob boss’ heart is an ocean of secrets. He relocates his family to Brazil and takes a third wife (Maria Fernanda Candido), and dreams of moving deep into the Amazon. But trouble always manages to find him, and the mafia never forgets. Eventually, Buscetta finds himself extradited to Rome, where he forges a severely underplayed friendship with Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), the man tasked with gathering his testimony.
While “The Traitor” never flatlines, the scenes between Buscetta and Falcone are too unfocused to sustain the momentum that Bellocchio suffuses into the first act. The script, which the director co-wrote with four other people, begins to mistake obfuscation with complexity, as Buscetta slowly devolves into a mystery the film is moving too fast to solve. As helpful and artful as some of Bellocchio’s asides can be, he elides much of the crucial information that might help us understand the basics of Buscetta’s most impactful decisions.
The film neglects to even try to dramatize Buscetta’s dawning realization that he will never be safe, nor his growing admiration for the man sitting across from him at the interrogation table. The court scenes that follow are full of spirited character actors, and convey a mesmerizingly chaotic legal system that seems to be making itself up on the fly, but the trials are too process-driven to serve the story’s emotional core (it does help that the courtrooms are well-lit, as the atrocious-looking digital cinematography makes the darker passages feel like they were shot on the same camera that Michael Mann used for “Collateral” 15 years ago.).
By the time “The Traitor” finds its way back to Buscetta for an overextended final stretch that trafficks in all of the usual symbology of paranoia, he’s become both too complicated for us to understand and too simple for us to care about. Only the quiet final scenes, in which Bellocchio ties a bow on the extended flashback about the man and his son, manage to restore a salient perspective to a film that’s lost its way: This isn’t the story of a man who was able to leave the mafia behind, it’s the story of a man who was able to find some measure of peace in spite of the fact that he could never escape from their shadow.
“The Traitor” premiered in Competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.