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Film Review: “The Traitor” Struggles to Sustain a Balancing Act Between the Mafia and the State

Written by: Hannah Tran | May 12th, 2020

Film poster: “The Traitor”

The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Italian director Marco Bellochio’s Palme d’Or selection The Traitor begins with a party. There’s something vaguely familiar about it. It’s as if we’ve been there before, but this certainly isn’t any party. We soon realize the lively gathering largely consists of members of Cosa Nostra, otherwise known as the Sicilian Mafia. As we watch friends and families and those whose connection is categorized as another sort of “family” coalesce under fireworks and the buzz of alcohol, we are unaware of the fact that this is the last moment in the film that the latter meaning of family will be intact. For while The Traitor initially lets you believe it is like any other mafia movie, it soon surprises as it becomes a biographical courtroom drama based on Tommaso Buscetta, the man who would sell that family out by informing on them in what is still considered the largest anti-mafia trial in history.

The thing about The Traitor is that its success as a film seems to entirely hinge on whether or not it can truly sell this turn from one type of genre to another. But The Traitor never wants to commit itself to just one style. After spending the first hour defining itself as a typical mafia movie, it then decides to switch back and forth between the two. But much like the presence of the inevitably disgruntled members of Cosa Nostra shouting behind bars at the back of the courtroom, the mafia side of the movie lurks as an ever-present shadow seeping into whatever lies around it. It is difficult to decide whether this works in the movie’s favor, considering the courtroom scenes are finely divided between forgettable/seemingly tangential to the overarching narrative or grippingly tense/direct explorations of loyalty as serviced on the level of the state.

But one element that is undeniable is the stellar performance of lead actor Pierfrancesco Favino (Rush). On a purely emotional level, Favino’s Buscetta manages to be both incredibly bare and steadfast proving that, even in his harshest of moments, he was someone whose perspective you could trust to guide yours. It is only regrettable that the movie doesn’t commit to allowing one into that headspace more; Buscetta’s portrayal feels almost entirely external. We see many reasons why he would turn on the people he was once bound to, yet his actions from there remain almost entirely concealed. It is the moments that we catch glimpses of that mind, principally in the form of a specific flashback, that become the movie’s entire emotional crutch.

Pierfrancesco Favino in THE TRAITOR ©Sony Pictures Classics

But while these are unquestionably strong in their own right, they are forced to carry a lot considering the lengthy runtime. It is thus also a shame that in this time The Traitor fails to develop any of its other characters. It is certainly filled with enough options to do so, yet many of those who seem on the brink of importance are soon swallowed up by the complexity and scale that the narrative encompasses.

Much like its characters, The Traitor always feels as if it’s on the brink of becoming something greater.  It even contains more than one moment that might scrape that greatness. And yet, it feels held back from this both by its aspirations toward the films that came before it and its determination to contradict the guidelines that those films created. Like the fireworks at the beginning, the characters can bask in the fading light above, but, of course, they can never reach it.

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Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. She is currently studying film and English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In addition to her studies, Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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