Festival programmers sweat bullets over their opening night selection. Ideally, it should be sexy yet substantial, crowd-pleasing in a feel-good way with a gloss of prestige and a dash of art. The debuting weekend series Cinema Italian Style (Nov. 22–24 at the Vogue) hits several of those targets with The Traitor, Marco Bellochio’s bullet-riddled opus about the 1980s implosion (explosion?) of the Cosa Nostra at the hands of a bitter insider and a dedicated prosecutor.
Italy’s submission for the International Feature Film Award at the Oscars (ample prestige right there) is based on the real-life travails of Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), a bright, beefy gangster who had the foresight to decamp to Brazil with his third wife and young children before the mob dove headlong into heroin trafficking. Buscetta anticipated intergang violence, but didn’t imagine that maniac Sicilian mafioso “Toto” Riina would kill Buscetta’s adult children and brother-in-law, who had nothing to do with gang business.
So when Buscetta is arrested and extradited to Italy, and meets judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), he opts to turn state’s evidence. The Traitor evokes the lawless terror and pervasive corruption that the gangsters inflicted on Italian society—including the daylight assassinations of judges and their bodyguards—and the relief that Falcone’s convictions provided, but it doesn’t provide the leave-with-a-smile catharsis of an old-school Hollywood movie.
By the end, Buscetta has gone gun crazy in America, waiting with his AK for faceless hit men. Because the mob never forgets.
The gangster movie, thanks to Francis Ford Coppola’s talent and Martin Scorsese’s commercial success, has become a prestige genre. Cinema Italian Style, presented by the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco and the Istituto Luce Cinecittà as a successor of sorts to the long-running New Italian Cinema Events (NICE) festival, recognized that the latter filmmaker’s The Irishman would be something of a phenomenon, despite its profound superficiality. (The first post I ever wrote for this site is still relevant.)
But The Traitor, although narratively bumpy, is more than entertainment. Bellochio, the widely respected director who toasted his 80th birthday a couple weekends ago, has an investment in his country’s history and suffering—his fury at the Cosa Nostra bleeds onto the screen at several points—that Scorsese can’t, or won’t, match. When the smoke clears, Bellochio understands that gunplay isn’t play, even in the movies.