★★★☆☆

Is there ever honour in betrayal? If the system to which you swore a blood allegiance no longer upholds its traditional values, should you not speak out against it? The moral ambiguities and questions of legacy, friendship, family and integrity in Marco Bellochio’s The Traitor are the strongest points of an ambitious, punishing addition to a long line of films to explore the inner workings of the Cosa Nostra.

The director’s latest work deals with the extraordinary life and times of Tommaso Buscetta. It was chiefly his testimony at the Maxi Trial of 1986–1992, held in a specifically constructed courtroom space at the Ucciardone prison in Palermo, that would lead to a total of 366 convictions in one of the largest ever anti-mafia proceedings. To divulge the end result is in no way a spoiler here, as Bellochio’s principal concerns are the how and the why, the brutal, cadaver-strewn, meandering road that landed a crucial blow to the Sicilian mafia. It is Italian character actor Pierfrancesco Favino who embodies Buscetta with steady, understated assurance.

Bellochio places great faith in his leading man, who appears in almost every scene of the 153-minute runtime, and it is clear from the off that in spite of the money rolling in, all is not well in paradise. Just as on the day of a certain Corleone wedding, amid the merry-making of a gathering of families in The Traitor’s opening sequence, there are furtive glances, unspoken gestures and a wary, falsely congenial Buscetta confides in a close friend that he wants out of the game. First escaping to Rio de Janeiro in 1980 to live with his third wife, Cristina (Maria Fernanda Candido), Buscetta’s tale crisscrosses the Atlantic, and over thirty years, almost too quickly to ever keep its feet on the ground – and therein lies one of the film’s issues.

In spite of maintaining steady pacing, and cutting a full hour off the likes of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Bellochio and his three further credited screenwriters struggle to juggle the sheer weight of material at their disposal for a standalone film with anything more than superficial character development. Bracing, kinetic action is interspersed with the terrific, zoo-like bedlam of the court sequences and Buscetta’s revelatory discussions, and evident mutual respect, over espressos and cigarettes with pioneering judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), is the closest we come to a genuine emotional connection in the film. Only rarely do we crack the surface of Buscetta’s exterior.

Showing only momentary flares of anger or regret, nightmarish visions of lost loved ones and even his own funeral, give some sense of deep internal anguish, but they are too perfunctory to leave a veritable impact. The many incentives, ills and inner turmoil he suffers in moving towards a decision to collaborate with authorities constitute much of his apparent existential plight. Other than clear personal revenge, his true motives for testifying against former friends and colleagues are slippery. Is the degradation of Sicilian mafia’s Godfather-esque honour by the heroin trade enough? In speaking with Falcone, “Don Massino” paints himself as little more than a lowly soldier at the base of the organisation’s pyramidal hierarchy.

And yet he likes the feel of a tailored suit, wants an arresting officer to pronounce his surname correctly, revels in the limelight of a centre-stage performance, press attention and is unafraid of giving former ‘family’ members more than a proverbial middle finger. Ultimately, a clear verdict on whether Buscetta is a traitor or hero, turncoat or champion of a people oppressed by organised crime will depend on which side of the bars you sit. But infamy, for better or worse, is preferable to being forgotten – and The Traitor is a further vote in favour of ensuring he won’t.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63