If you enjoyed The Irishman, you’ll love The Traitor. It is an Italian film about the fall of the Sicilian mafia, or Cosa Nostra, in the 1980s and 1990s. The film was in competition for the Palme D’Or last year, losing to Parasite. Like Scorsese’s film, we follow an older criminal as he describes the less-than-legal actions he and his fellow members of the mafia once participated in. As a result of the trials, the mafia was finally proven to exist in court, and known associates or members could be tried as criminals.
The story centers Tommaso Buscetta’s perspective as the titular “traitor,” though he doesn’t see himself as a rat—the values of those he outs as members of the Cosa Nostra have betrayed their values by turning away from helping the poor. The mafia has become increasingly involved in the drug trade, especially with heroin, and they are only getting worse. The Cosa Nostra is self-destructing from the incredible profits and inter-fighting between the families, leaving many dead in an almost war-like slaughter.
Tommaso (Pierfrancesco Favino) begins the film as a fugitive, appearing for a mafia family photo-op during a holiday party and quickly disappearing to Brazil and changing his name. This photograph not only identifies every major member of the story in one scene, it also becomes a crucial piece of evidence later for the trials. The photograph scene identifies each person by name, and drawing the lines between the warring old Palermo family and Corleones. This scene pushes the audience right into the deep end, just the way a great 70s crime film would.
We learn that Tommaso is nicknamed “Masino,” and is also known as “the boss of two worlds” thanks to his international operations. He is one of few who don’t end up clocked by the on-screen body count in the first act of the film, but his adult sons are brutally strangled, and that changes his perspective. Though he is initially reluctant to work with the police and judges, he quickly realizes that they will provide more protection than what he could get on the outside. Tommaso’s wife and remaining young children have been hidden from potentially brutal deaths.
The film’s second half follows the trials. The audience gets a brief primer on the Italian judicial system: here, the attorneys of the defendants cannot face the witness. Everyone sits behind him, and he faces the judges at the front of the room. This is the source of many complaints and protests by the defendants, who are all in cages along the perimeter of the court room. It’s fascinating staging. The witness must sit in a glass cage, presumably for his own protection. Since all of this is based on real events, the theatrics are a given, but it never gives way to soapy melodramatics. As we see on television every day, trials are their own form of theater, and the more sensational the defendant(s) are, the bigger the show. The aesthetics of the courtroom itself will always matter, and in real life, the court was a special construction specific to these trials. Considering there are hundreds of defendants, the show lasted for years.
Everything feels right, from the editing to the design of the sets and cast. The Traitor is at first urgently paced, but settles into a solid ending. The Traitor is fairly underrated in the U.S., maybe due to its release against the numerous powerhouse American films in 2019, but it shouldn’t be counted out, as it’s still among the better films of the year.