Sunday, March 08, 2020

On "The Traitor"

One might mistake the first third of Marco Bellocchio's latest film "The Traitor" as something produced from the Bruckheimer factory of splatter ammunition and human carnage. Taking place in Italy during the late 70's and early 80's, the film initially charts the reckoning of a mafioso war as the ravages from both sides ratchets up... complete with scrolling counter that appears on the edge of the screen, ending on a certain number as the bodies on-screen lay in their final violent resting place in each episode. It's not only a sobering gambit that factually recalls the terror of its time, but a visual keynote that instills certifiable dread in the viewer as it tumbles towards gargantuan numbers. However, Bellocchio isn't interested solely in shock value. What this opening third of the film does for the rest of its 150 minute epic length is caste a pallor over its real intention, which is to subtly define the growth of one Tommaso Buscetti (embodied perfectly by Pierfrancesco Favino) from mafioso snitch to plagued nobody left in the gleaming wilderness of neon Miami with a small arsenal and bleary-eyed regrets for the sins of his criminal past. It's not quite "The Irishman" level of haunted blackness, but it's awfully close.

After this explosive first half, "The Traitor" settles into an almost philosophical treatise on the twisted morals of a man turning his back on the 'family' who raised him. Taking up a remainder of the film, Bellocchio stays within the congested confines of the Maxi Trials and their unbelievably absurd surroundings. Hundreds of men in glass cages, shouting, hurling insults and genuinely disrupting a panel of judges trying to interrogate Tommaso, a man among them whose turned informant after the deaths of most of his family by the hands of the opposing Corleone family. Filmed in long stretches as the battle of wills becomes a battle of he-said-he-said (and really, in a snake pit how can anyone trust another?), "The Traitor"'s real sense of purpose comes into blinding focus. For a filmmaker whose been idiosyncratically searching for the complex relationships between family, political icons and warring ideals since the early 60's, this film may be the closest he's ever come to mining out the truth in the matter. Done because he feels everyone else is the real traitor for turning their backs on the age-old traditions of the mafia, Tommaso embodies a conflicted on-screen presence that begs us not to identify with him, but simply understand the collision of ideals he's fighting against.

As the 80 year old director's 27th feature length film, "The Traitor" is his most accessible in years, brimming still with aesthetic vibrancy and audible intelligence. But perhaps the most striking thing of all- despite all the unsettling bursts of violence- is Favino's portrayal of a man who my have turned his back on the organization known as the mafia, but who can't quite outrun the nightmares of his sordid life. To the film's credit, it ends with a heartbreaking whimper rather than a loud bang.... and it resonates all the more strongly for it.

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