If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching mob movies, it’s that you never snitch on the mafia. Killing people, stealing, selling drugs, infringing on other mobsters’ territories, or sleeping with their wives can all be forgiven, but talking to the police is a mortal sin; do it and you’re a dead man walking. This is what makes the subject of The Traitor, Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), so incredible. For 20 years, he publicly informed on the Sicilian mafia, leading to multiple arrests and convictions of dangerous mobsters. Unfortunately, the movie about his life isn’t nearly as interesting as this premise makes it sound.
The Traitor opens with a dizzyingly quick overview of a gang war between two factions of the mafia in the early ’80s. Within 30 minutes, a half-dozen characters that the audience has barely met have been gunned down or dismembered. When Buscetta is arrested in Brazil, he agrees to cooperate with the Italian government because his sons have been killed in the escalating violence. For the next two hours, the film alternates between Buscetta testifying in court against his fellow mafiosos and adjusting to life in witness protection. The movie presents this latter portion in a very straightforward manner, depicting scenes from Buscetta’s life without tying them together in any larger narrative. Perhaps the film should be lauded for not trying to force a complicated life into the mold of a simple story, but the end effect is a rather purposeless and boring movie.
For the most part, The Traitor is a well-made film. After an oddly terrible opening sequence that looks like it was shot for a soap opera, the movie settles into a competent (if uninteresting) groove. The cinematography is unremarkable, but it gets the job done and the editing gives each scene just enough forward movement to keep the movie from becoming a complete snoozefest. Every once and a while director Marco Bellocchio will throw in a more obvious stylistic flourish, to mixed results. In one shot, the camera captures the view from the inside of a car as it is blown up into the air by a roadside bomb and then comes crashing back down to Earth, all in one unbroken shot. It’s a truly amazing sequence that stands out because it is so much better than the rest of the film. Other stylized elements, like the footage of rats when Buscetta decides to snitch or the photograph that introduces half the cast, are either too obvious or too confusing to add much to the movie.
The Traitor isn’t really a bad movie; it’s just not a particularly interesting one. By the time the credits roll, it hasn’t established a reason to spend two and half hours on its subject. It has no discernable point of view on Buscetta, whether he was a good person fighting back against the mafia or just an opportunist who wanted to avoid separation from his family. Nor does it have much insight on the mafia, except that they really, really hate snitches. The approach to storytelling is almost like a documentary, but most events lack enough background to actually contextualize what’s going on. The mob genre is full of excellent movies. The Traitor is not one of them.