Monday, January 11, 2021

The Traitor: The Best Movie of 2020

Pierfrancesco Favino in The Traitor (Il traditore), directed by Marco Bellocchio. (Photo: Laura Siervi/Sony Pictures Classics)

The Traitor is a lush, big-boned, two-and-a-half-hour Italian Mafia epic, dense with characters, that transpires over the course of the last two decades of the twentieth century, with flashbacks to 1963 and 1974. It was released on this side of the Atlantic early last year and though it received good reviews, it didn’t make the splash it deserved to make, and by now it’s probably been largely forgotten. At least it opened here; the work of its director, Marco Bellocchio, often doesn’t. Bellocchio has been turning out movies since the mid-sixties, and often they’re astonishing, but outside Italy – or perhaps outside the European arthouse scene – he’s virtually unknown. He established a cerebral, visually daring, highly modernist style with his second and third feature-length pictures, Fists in the Pocket (1965) and China Is Near (1967), and his wit, his startlingly confident cinematic adventurousness and his left-wing politics begged comparisons with Godard, but he’s never received the recognition he’s earned. I adore those movies and the one that followed them, In the Name of the Father (1971). But after the iconoclastic bravado of those early efforts he didn’t exactly relax into bourgeois complacency; movies like Leap in the Void (1980) and The Eyes, the Mouth (1982) tease the brain and surprise the eye, and the performers – especially Michel Piccoli in the first and Angela Molina in the second – reach for complex emotional states, for effects that, perhaps, no one has caught on camera before. Since he hit his sixties (he turned eighty-one last November) it seems to me that he’s become, if anything, more ambitious and even more of a master. His 2003 Good Morning, Night, a dramatization of the Aldo Moro kidnapping by the Red Brigades (which is, for Italians, a historical black mark comparable to the JFK assassination for Americans), told from the point of view of one of the kidnappers, is one of the great political movies, and like Louis Malle’s 1974 Lacombe, Lucien, it transpires at the meeting point of history and philosophy. Vincere (2009), which focuses on Ida Dalser, Mussolini’s secret, abandoned wife (a magnificent performance by Giovanna Mezzogiorno), is as staggering a piece of expressionist filmmaking as anything that came out of Ufa Studios in Berlin in the 1920s.

And now here’s The Traitor, which takes a breathtakingly unconventional approach to the gangster epic. It’s more or less the movie you hoped you’d see (and many people appeared to think they had) when you went out to Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. But The Irishman was bloated, static and unrevealing; dynamic and expansive, The Traitor fills you up. The superb Pierfrancesco Pavino plays Tommaso Buscetta (nicknamed Masino), a Cosa Nostra soldier who leaves the service of his capo, Totò Riina (Nicola Calì), moves his wife and younger children to Rio de Janeiro, and is arrested there in 1980 after Riina has murdered his brother and his two older sons. When he gets out of prison four years later, he’s extradited to Italy, where the judge, Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), informs him that he and his remaining family have been relocated to Florida, where, he assures Masino, they will be safe. At this point Masino hasn’t yet informed on his old boss and his subordinates, and when he does, it’s in the spirit of honor rather than simple revenge or even survival. The title of Bellocchio’s movie has a double meaning. Technically Masino is the traitor – the rat who turns state’s evidence. But in his eyes the Cosa Nostra is a once-honorable organization that hewed to a set of iron-clad rules: you hit your enemies, but not their wives or children, and not representatives of the justice system. Riina has, in Masino’s view, corrupted the tradition: he kills wildly, vengefully, wiping out entire families, and the judges who try Mafiosi are as imperiled as witnesses who have turned against their bosses. (This notorious chapter in Italian history is also covered, succinctly and potently, in Marco Tullio Giordana’s six-hour epic The Best of Youth, my favorite movie of the twenty-first century.) To Masino, Riina is the traitor.

Lovers of The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II – that includes all of us who love movies, right? – will spot the parallels: Riina’s regime is to that of his predecessors as Michael Corleone’s is to his father’s. But in the first Godfather Coppola rode the fine line between sentimentalizing Don Corleone’s Mafia and presenting its horrors. Riina is a monster, and so is his second-in-command, Pippo Calò (Fabrizio Ferracane), who has known Masino’s sons Benedetto (Gabriele Cicirello) and Antoinio (Paraide Cicirello) all their lives yet strangles them in their twenties without a moment’s hesitation or (apparently) regret when they honestly can’t answer his questions about their father’s whereabouts. We never meet the men who ran the Cosa Nostra before Riina took it over, so Bellocchio and his four co-screenwriters (Valia Santella, Ludovica Rampoldi, Francesco Piccolo and Francesco La Licata) don’t address what it was like in an earlier era; it’s enough that Masino perceives that when he strikes out against his old capo, he’s continuing to embody its values. The filmmakers don’t skip over the irony that a drug dealer and killer talks about honor – but nor do they shortchange Masino’s guilt over what he’s done: a murder he committed as a young man haunts him until he dies. The Traitor doesn’t try to resolve these contradictions, and it’s a bigger movie because of it. I’d say it’s a masterpiece.

Bellocchio won his entrée into the international movie scene with a movie in which the young protagonist (Lou Castel) kills off the members of his family. Fists in the Pocket is still shocking, and its stylistic command and invention can still make your jaw drop. The Traitor has scenes that are just as amazing, like one where the ghosts of Masino’s dead visit him in a dream, with flowers and a coffin, as if they were mourning him. (The beautiful cinematography is by Vladan Radovic.) When the trial against the Cosa Nostra begins in Italy in 1986, the goings-on in the courtroom are pure theatre, and Bellocchio’s depiction of them seems to encompass most of the important modern theatrical styles: expressionism, surrealism, Brechtianism, theatre of the absurd. The defendants sit or stand behind bars at the back of the courtroom. One shows up with his mouth sewn shut because, he protests, his mouth is his only defense and no one believes what he says; a second has an actual fit; a third strips naked to show that he’s hiding nothing. A fourth complains that the guards placed in front the bars prevent him from looking his judges in the eye. And then the wives stream in, screaming that their husbands are not traitors. Two defendants sit next to each other in sealed-off glass cages, contradicting each other’s version of events. One of the key witnesses against his bosses, Totuccio Contorno (the gifted Luigi Lo Cascio, one of the stars of both Good Morning, Night and The Best of Youth), who talks in court in a Sicilian dialect so thick and fast that the lawyers complain no one can understand his testimony, makes a speech about Mafiosi who were greedy about the money they made from the sale of heroin yet lost their own children to drug addiction. (The first time we see Benedetto Buscetta, at a party in Palermo, the capital of the heroin trade, his father finds him lying wasted on the beach, and it seems likely that, had he not been murdered, he would have wound up as one of those lost children.) The other defendants yell insults at Contorno, who turns his back to the judges and answers them in kind. You’ve never seen a gangster movie with sequences this outré or demonstrations of machismo this grandiose. Bellocchio is a true movie poet who is still, in his eighties, coming up with innovative approaches to rhyme and meter. There isn’t a greater director still working.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.    

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