Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor – A Maxi Trial Act of Beauty Unlocking Mafia’s Code of Silence

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The Traitor

Exclusive interviews with Maestro Marco Bellocchio and Actor Pierfrancesco Favino, presenting The Traitor (Il Traditore), in New York at the 4th edition of Italy on Screen Today Film Fest directed by Loredana Commonara. The biopic depicting the life of Tommaso Buscetta – the Italian mobster who became one of the first Sicilian Mafia members ever to turn informant – is the Official Italian Entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 2020 Academy Awards, and will be distributed in the U.S. by Sony Pictures Classics from January 2020. 

By Tommaso Cartia

Is there an answer or a possible resolution to the atavic questions and paradoxes that a phenomenon as complex as the Sicilian Mafia still hides in its secreted code of honor? How can we even remotely conceive two different mobsters accusing each other of their lack of morality; or picturing them living and suffering for love, from the loss of a child, or happily appreciating the simple joys of life while living in the constant trepidation to kill or be killed? “We have to think of Mafia, like if it was a foreign country, with its different culture, different language, a country that is completely different from ours,” Pierfrancesco Favino, who stars in the complex role of Tommaso Buscetta, arguments, giving me a brilliant angle to reflect on. It’s through the larger-than-life profile of Buscetta that one of the most prominent Masters of Contemporary Italian Cinema, Marco Bellocchio, reflects on the Maxi Trial (1986-1992), the largest anti-Mafia process in history and on that pivotal moment of Italian history when for the first time ever, Judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, broke through the underworld of the Sicilian Mafia and unlocked its code of silence, changing it forever.

I’m Sicilian, and I’ve witnessed the Mafia operating a couple of blocks from my house in Sicily, probably that’s why I’m usually very cautious, and I dare to say intolerant when I experience some of those clichés and simplifications of that reality fictionalized on the silver screen. I’m also talking about masterpieces like The Godfather, which is a grandiose, epic movie that I perceive though as something to watch for its filmic beauty more than to find answers to those Sicilian Mafia’s atavic questions. Maestro Bellocchio’s The Traitor, is something different, is something that accelerated my heartbeat, chained me to the chair and gave me an unprecedented look on what used to happen a couple of blocks from my house in Sicily: it’s a testimony. I couldn’t expect anything less from the movie painter of Italian cinema, the anarchic poet and intellectual who is as powerful when he is probing of the societal mores of the Italian family and institutions as when he investigates his own autobiographical universe.

Editor in Chief of Creative Pois-On, Tommaso Cartia, interviews Maestro Marco Bellocchio at The Italy on Screen Today Press Lunch. Photo by Francesca Magnani.

The ideas for his movies often come dressed up in imaginative suggestions, in pictorial epiphanies, and that is no surprise as indeed the director of Fists in The Pocket , started out as a painter. “If I have to think of an imaginary, this story reminds me of the art of the American Realism, in particular, the Maxi Trial,” Bellocchio tells me when I asked him about the inspiration behind the movie. “We were able to shoot in the real courtroom where the trial was held, that’s the heart of the movie. I was very interested in the discreetly, conflicting lights of the room, very diffused. And also, spatially, I was attracted by the different point of view of the Mafia convicts within their cages and how we look at them from outside.”If Bellocchio’s imaginary inspiration comes from colors and spatiality, for Favino, it did come from Buscetta himself: “Before studying for the role, I knew a little bit about his story and how he has always been different and unique from the cliché of the typical mob guy. Thinking about the theme of image, in the case of Buscetta, it is particularly interesting, because he has been always obsessed by his own image and looks – he had so many face lifts – I would call it a form of dysmorphophobia. He was also obsessive in the way that he needed to constantly reaffirm his own identity, ‘I am Tommaso Buscetta,’ was one of his signature saying, and again it is paradoxical if we think that he grew up in a family of glassworkers. He also had a maniacal care for his hands and the way that he dressed, such a vanity. He so wanted to see himself in a different way, to adhere to a model of elegance and social status that it didn’t belong to his upbringing.” 

Pierfrancesco Favino
Consul General of Italy Francesco Genuardi presents the Wind Of Europe International Award to Pierfrancesco Favino. In the picture, Oscar-winning Director James Ivory, special guest of the Italy on Screen Today Film Fest Award Ceremony held at the Walter Reade Theater-Lincoln Center in New York. Photo by Jeff Smith

Starting from that imaginary, Favino really did transform and almost transfigured himself into Buscetta, he was also able to perfectly modulate and emulate his voice and that specific Sicilian dialect, and for someone who is not Sicilian, like Favino, ad even for the Sicilians themselves, it is definitely an epic undertaking with a surprising result. If Favino worked as a biographer with the subject matter, Bellocchio tried to find that something in his autobiographical experience, that he could have made him feel closer to the world of the mobster: “At first it was very difficult to enter that world, starting with the Mafia language, that I didn’t know, a language of few words. Then, getting closer to Buscetta I was fascinated by his love for music, opera, melodrama, and even pop music. That made him closer. Also, the theme of betrayal is something that I can definitely relate to. I’m not ashamed to say that I did betray in my life. I betrayed because I wanted to separate myself from certain situations I didn’t agree with anymore. So, I betrayed with the hope to operate a positive change. Even though this is not really the case of Buscetta, he betrayed not to change but in order that he could have preserved who he was.”

Marco Bellocchio
Artistic Director of Italy on Screen Today Film Fest Loredana Commonara with Marco Bellocchio and Pierfrancesco Favino, recipients of the Wind of Europe International Award at the Walter Reade Theater-Lincoln Center in New York. Photo by Jeff Smith.

Maestro Bellocchio’s words seem to echo one of the most significant books in Sicilian and Italian literature, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, when addressing the change in Sicilian life and society during the Risorgimento – the time that consolidated the Kingdom of Italy in the 19th century – the author writes: “if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” That’s somehow Buscetta’s philosophy and the possible reason behind his decision to turn informant, and not really pentito (repented), because he never wanted to deny or betrayed what for him were the real Mafia values, against his enemies within the organization of Cosa Nostra. “Buscetta will never be either a hero or an exemplary,” tells me Bellocchio, “he is a man who has been defeated, but that never really wanted to quit being a mobster, on the contrary, he was proud of his princely way of being a Mafia boss. Someone who would respect the core values of the Mafia, with that sort of Robin Hood ideal to help the poorest class, also looking after and never touching children and women. He is a conservatory man in the Mafia organization, he didn’t want their rules to change the way they did because of the explosion of the heroin market and that race to the absolute power that it suddenly invested his enemies, the Corleonesi and specifically Totò Riina. Buscetta comes back from his exile and turns informant because he is forced to, but his courage and loyalty towards his relatives and also the institutions it’s respectable. This way, he was definitely instrumental for the fight of Judge Falcone, that he greatly respected.”

James Ivory
James Ivory with Marco Bellocchio on the stage of Italy on Screen Today Film Fest at the Walter Reade Theater-Lincoln Center in New York. Photo by Jeff Smith.

It is sort of hard, still, to understand the different sets of rules and codes of the Mafia, a world where every common-known value seems to be overturned. Mafia is indeed a criminal organization as well as a way of thinking that is not just of Sicily or the South of Italy, it’s a contemporary world-wide phenomenon; although: “its code of honor is millenary,” argued Favino, who really dig into the Mafia history, “the first traces of the Mafia movement are attributable to the Saracens, an Arab tribe that invaded Sicily and that needed to escape from the Normans who were trying to conquer the island. The Saracens hid in the most remote villages of the island where they started communities in groups of ten. The Mafia’s Decina (the ten in Italian), is still today a branch of the Sicilian Mafia family. And so probably the function of Mafia is rooted in a society that feels far away from the central power, and that needed to come up with its own inner rules.”

Pierfrancesco Favino stepped into the Sicilian Mafia world with the same grace and intellectual honesty and respect that he put in embracing Bellochio’s world: “It was incredible, to be a part of his cinema, which is really art, he is an artist lived by his poetical, philosophical world. The moment that he opens you the door to that world, it’s pure magic. To have gained his trust and his listening is something that will definitely divide my career in before and after Bellocchio.”

Our Editor in Chief Tommaso Cartia interviewing Pierfrancesco Favino.

The Traitor has already been a massive success in Italy, it has been already distributed in 100 regions, it was acclaimed and praised at the Cannes Film Festival this year, won several awards at the prestigious Nastro d’Argento, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Score – Nicola Piovani – and it is now nominated for the European Film Awards in all of the most glamorous categories. And so, there’s naturally a lot of expectation and trepidation for the Best International Feature Film submission at the upcoming Academy Awards and the distribution of the movie in the U.S. that will start tip of next year thanks to Sony Picture Classics: “Of course to have a powerhouse like Sony behind the film it gives it a lot of credibility,” told me Bellocchio, “based on the audience reactions we believe the movie is getting a lot of positive hype, so we can just wish for the best.” Someone who has been experiencing the jolts and sparks of the big Hollywood productions is Favino who was recently cast in movies like The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince CaspianAngels & DemonsNight at the Museum and World War Z; so it is interesting to understand his preferential point of view not only on the U.S. journey of The Traitor but on the today positioning and success of the Italian cinema in the American Market: “I believe that the history teaches us that we Italians need to stick in doing our own cinema.

The Traitor
The Traitor Official Movie Poster.

We can’t bend to the codes of the American movies, a cinema that ultimately, we are not able to do, but that doesn’t mean that we have less cards left to play. Actually, The Academy always awarded our cinema when it was authentically Italian. We have two completely different ways to make movies because our cultures are very different. Our hero, is a hero who carries doubts and looks for his deus ex machina, the gods, the fairies, to solve his problems. We come from the spiritual Greek and Latin tradition, from that way of constructing a drama and that fatalistic sense of life. The Americans’ premise is in the Protestant philosophy of the self-made man, the super-hero. It is very different.”

Wishing all of the good luck to The Traitor for its American release; I was happy to have been stimulated to revisit my own doubts, questions and unresolved paradoxes of the Mafia phenomenon that this movie beautifully processes in a maxi trial act of Beauty.

For more info on Italy on Screen Today Film Fest please click here: www.italyonscreentoday.it


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