The Sicilian capital of Palermo hosted a marathon trial of the Mafia for almost 6 years, from 1986 to 1992. It ended with 338 members of La Cosa Nostra being convicted. 19 men were sentenced to life in prison (ergastolo). This trial was one of the longest in Mafia history. It was held after the Corleonesi (a faction within the Corleone family of the Sicilian Mafia) killed people brutally in the early 1980s. It turned Mafiosi into informants (Rats) and had a large impact on organized crime in the region.
The mobster-turned-pentito (informant), Tommaso Buscetta emerges as the star witness for the prosecution after he was arrested in Brazil and is angered over the murder of his sons and friends back in Italy. For 20 years he ratted out the Sicilian Mafia which led to many arrests and convictions. Subsequently, he was despised by his former colleagues. He collaborated extensively with Giovanni Falcone, a magistrate who was assassinated in 1992 because of his anti-Mafia efforts. The confession of Buscetta led to some big Mafia players being imprisoned, including godfathers Salvatore “the Beast” Riina and Michele “the Pope” Greco.
In the new Italian-language film, “The Traitor” (“Il Traditore”) directed by Marco Bellocchio, Buscetta, with dark thick hair and a penchant for wearing sunglasses in the courtroom, is played by the brilliant Pierfrancesco Favino.
The movie opens with a violent gang war in the 1980’s between two Mafia factions. Though I have seen better, it is fast-paced, violent and gives you a real feel for the explosiveness of the Mafia tension at the time.
Buscetta’s willingness to break the code of silence and criticize the Mafia was unprecedented and nothing like it has happened since. At least not on this scale.
Both Bellochio and Favino though resisted the urge to make Buscetta look like a saint. Revolting against the Mafia, though noble, it was done privately to Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi) and under heavy security in the Carcere dell’Ucciardone (prison) where the trial took place.
The film also highlights a moral question regarding the relationship between organized crime and religion, most especially the Roman Catholic Church. Buscetta was born into poverty in Palermo in 1928. A catholic city known for its annual celebration of its patroness Saint Rosalia.
Unlike Frank Sheeran’s tight-lipped character in “The Irishman,” by Martin Scorsese, Buscetta confesses his sins publicly and renounces his former way of life. Still, redemption does not come easy, if at all. Confessions were not made to a cardinal like in “The Godfather Part III.”
An angry woman who was betrayed by the revelations of Buscetta was asked by a reporter “Ma’am, don’t you believe in Christian forgiveness?” She replied, “Yes, but first he has to kill himself and then I’ll forgive him.”
Buscetta and his family, as part of the Witness Protection Program, were moved to Salem, N.H, and then Fort Collins, Colo. and finally Miami, Fla.
The two-and-a-half hour-long movie is interspersed with footage of the characters’ real-life counterparts, giving it a pseudo-documentary vibe. Although the violence in the first part of the movie feels uneven at times, the other half of “The Traitor” succeeds in providing a riveting courtroom drama.
The dialogue delivered by Favino in the last frenzied scenes is fast-paced and hits right where it needs to all while he manages to maintain a cool exterior. In one scene he has an argument with Giuseppe “Pippo” Calò (Fabrizio Ferracane), a longtime associate who denies even knowing Buscetta. It is tense, with a real threat of violent retribution hanging in the air. There’s also some dark comic relief from the antics of prisoners and an annoying call to order from Presiding Judge Alfonso Giordano (played by a very convincing Bruno Cariello).
It’s not the best mob movie I’ve seen but it’s definitely worth watching.