CRIME MOVIES are mostly about cops and robbers, but in the real world the cast is bigger. It includes the prosecutors who lead investigations in many countries as well as the informers. The latter are a mixed bag. They range from the common “snitch”, who adds precariously to his criminal earnings by leaking snatches of underworld gossip, to what in Britain are called “supergrasses”: mobsters who, usually in return for a more lenient sentence, spill the beans on an entire organised-crime syndicate.
“The Traitor”, directed by Marco Bellocchio, is a rare example of a film about someone who falls into this last category. Tommaso Buscetta probably had a bigger impact than any supergrass in history. The information he gave to Giovanni Falcone, a legendary prosecutor, in the 1980s set off a chain of events that has left Sicily’s Cosa Nostra with a fraction of its former power and influence. Buscetta’s disclosures prompted the so-called “maxi-trial” of 1986-92 and the conviction of 338 mafiosi. In reprisal, Cosa Nostra assassinated Falcone, unleashing an unprecedented crackdown on the Sicilian Mafia that resulted in the arrest of the “boss of bosses”, Salvatore “Totò” Riina, and a string of his lieutenants, including in 2006 Mr Riina’s closest associate, Bernardo Provenzano.
It was not just that Buscetta fingered individuals. He buried forever the notion, beloved of complicit politicians and prelates, that Cosa Nostra was a media invention or a mere ethos. He confirmed that, on the contrary, the Mafia not only existed, but even had a governing body, the Cupola or Dome. Mr Bellochio says he wanted to get away from the conventions of gangster movies, and that he unquestionably does. The line between good and bad is blurred and twisted. Like the director’s other films, including “I pugni in tasca” (“Fists in the Pocket”)—his first movie and still one of his most admired—this one looks at how motives and outcomes can be morally incompatible. Pierfrancesco Favino as Buscetta gives a superb interpretation of a bad man who ends up doing good things.
Italian is unusual in having a word for a criminal turncoat that is not, like so many others, pejorative—doubtless because the term pentito was coined not in the underworld, but by the authorities. A “penitent” or “repentant one” can aspire to the decent, if not noble, status of those who have the wisdom to regret their sins and, in the best Catholic tradition, confess so as to merit redemption. As the film underlines, Buscetta refused to be called a pentito. On the contrary, he regarded himself as an authentic mafioso and deceived himself into thinking that his criminal exploits were underpinned by a code of honourable behaviour that contributed to the good of society. His mission was to destroy those who had betrayed the code by turning on their fellow mafiosi: the rustic hoodlums from Corleone, led by Riina, who in their campaign to seize control of the organisation unleashed a civil war of unparalleled ferocity inside Cosa Nostra. “Buscetta was a traitor who upended the meaning of betrayal,” says Mr Bellocchio.
Buscetta was on the losing side in the war. The Corleonesi murdered two of his sons, his brother, a son-in-law, a brother-in-law and four of his nephews. Ultimately, the former mobster’s motives were revenge and self-protection. But in a scene that many will find as ironic as it is surreal, he and Totò Riina—both guilty of multiple homicides—argue during a trial about which of them is dishonourable, the man from Corleone taking the view that Buscetta’s three marriages put him beyond the pale.
That and other scenes were filmed in the top-security “bunker courtroom”, ringed by cage-like enclosures for the defendants, beneath the courthouse in Palermo. Mr Bellocchio said he needed large numbers of extras for the scenes and, given the sensitivity of the location, the police vetted them. They rejected between 70 and 80 who had been in some way connected with Mafia trials. Cosa Nostra remains a part of the warp and weft of Sicilian society. It may be down, thanks to Tommaso Buscetta, but it is most certainly not out.
“The Traitor” is available to stream online in America and will be released online and in cinemas in Britain on July 24th
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