Roberto Bolaño’s posthumous novel 2666 — a sprawling, five-parter about an epidemic of female murders in a fictional Mexican city — features the remarkable centrepiece “The Part about the Crimes” — 300 pages clinically detailing the murders, delivered like a journalist’s report. In 2666’s unending stream of horror, and without any psychology that readers can parse through, Bolaño takes the crimes to a mythic level of spiritual decay. It’s not a whodunnit, its a reminder of death’s endless spectre.
I thought about 2666 a lot during the first act of The Traitor (Il traditore), Marco Bellocchio’s 145-minute mafia epic, which competed at Cannes and now embarks on an awards run as Italy’s Oscar selection. Exactly who has committed the crimes in Bellocchio’s film is common knowledge. The Italian filmmaker delivers 20 minutes of killing after killing; it’s noise and presence in plain sight, emotionally detaching the audience through its randomness and never-ending pathology. Without showing a reason for the inherent violence, all that’s left is the act itself.
Since The Godfather’s baptism scene, audiences are used to a blaze of retributional violence enacted as a kind of catharsis. The action is shot with high cinematic style, an excitement that raises questions about the viewer’s relationship to on-screen violence and immediate familiarity with mafia tropes. The Traitor turns that catharsis into a quest for exactly who this retribution is for.
After an opening sequence (which hastily establishes the main players’ relation to each other, lining them all up for a family photograph), Bellocchio launches into scene after scene of murder, the bodycount tallied up on the side of the screen. Upon seeing an associate flung from a helicopter, mob boss Tommasino Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino) flips, launching The Traitor into its next major section: a courtroom drama.
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The courtroom scenes are impressive in their sophisticated structure, with the man on the stand shielded from assassination by sitting in a bulletproof case. Around him sits various officials, while the assorted members of the mafia on trial are kept in cages, where they jeer at the crowd. This may be what happens in real life, but — in this case — it allows for remarkably dramatic blocking and pacing, and provides a welcome alternative to the standard CBS courtroom drama.
Luigi Lo Cascio provides incredible supporting work as Salvatore Contorno, who follows Buscetta’s lead and provides the most detailed testimony against his kin. This is where the extended deposition sequences are at their most successful, exploring language as a tool to parse class and status. Contorno has never left Sicily and only speaks the Sicilian dialect, much to the chagrin of the mainland government officials, who want him thrown from the court. Reaction shots from his ex-colleagues in the mob have them reserving their vilest reactions for Contorno. By informing, he’s a traitor not just to the mafia, but somehow to the entire Sicilian way of life. Lo Casico plays him less as the sniveling Fredo Corleone type than as a man who sees himself as a Richard III figure.
The Traitor was shot with super high resolution cameras that make the artificiality of props and acting quite noticeable. That isn’t a problem in and of itself, in fact this draws out the staged elements of the courtroom so that the Italian kleptocracy’s penchant for theatrics is clear. In a film this bloated, it is occasionally relieving to be told where to look, and what to think. When Buscetta reaches a metaphorical dead end, a street sign signals what viewers already know.
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Other moments where Bellocchio purposely makes the audience aware of The Traitor’s construction are less successful. Voiceover sequences leave threads hanging (Bernadette’s heroin-addled son), while references to the AIDS crisis come across as both histrionic and vague. When a prominent judge is offed, cheering is heard coming from the prison. But the scene of his explosive murder is difficult to work out, shot from the back of a car like Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950).
Buscetta doesn’t quite hit the road like Gun Crazy’s lovers, but he indeed ends up lost in America. After a witness protection move to the United States, he wanders a Walmart and buys a gun. Bellochio rather simplistically shows the divide between what the man had and what he’s traded it for. The most baffling part of this section is a scene where Buscetta takes his family for a meal. It’s a fancy restaurant, they’re all dressed up. As they peruse the menu, a guitar player sings a song about being from Sicily, which the family enjoys while clearly wistful of their displacement. As soon as the song ends, they silently get up and leave as operatic strings play. Did they lose their appetite? Do they want to rush back to the homeland? As they don’t look at one another or even react, it’s almost impossible to parse meaning from the scene. And yet, Bellocchio shoots the scene through with operatic feeling. Like so many other scenes, there’s no context, but it’s a symphonic climax that is hard to deny.
The Traitor covers the same period as Kim Longinotto’s Shooting the Mafia (2019), the documentary which explores media depictions of the mafia, particularly those by photo-journalist Letizia Battaglia. They make intriguing companion pieces, and in fact one may need that documentary to fill in the blanks here — because Italy’s Oscar entry is almost absurd. Viewers need a huge working knowledge of Italian politics, history and culture. Character relationships aren’t introduced. And yet, Bellochio’s film is a sweeping roller-coaster ride (apologies to Martin Scorsese).
It wouldn’t be surprising to see The Traitor filed in the Dad-canon of crime cinema alongside other European films like Mesrine (2008) or The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) — films where the context is too wide to sufficiently cover, so the audience is just left with the sensory pleasures of the genre. Bolaño’s 2666 was inspired by nonsense airport thrillers, with the author inserting harsh realism into the genre. With The Traitor, Bellocchio has taken it one step further and depicted reality with a new level of intensity, though sometimes it gets too real.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.