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Columns Eleanor Ringel Cater

‘The Traitor’ – a true Mafia thriller that spans decades

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By Eleanor Ringel Cater

In many ways, “The Traitor” is the movie “The Irishman” should’ve been. It, too, is made by an aging master – 80-year-old Marco Bellocchio rather than 77-year-old Martin Scorsese. It, too, runs several hours. And it, too, is a Mafia-based true story.

A publicity photo for the “The Traitor”

Actually, as our protagonist, Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfranscesco Favino), explains, “Mafia” is a media word. The correct term is Cosa Nostra. And Buscetta should know. He was recruited when he was still in his teens and served as a “soldier” to the bosses for years. Until, that is, he turned stoolie.

Like that most famous of Mob movies, “The Godfather,” “The Traitor” begins with a celebration. Not a wedding, but a summit of sorts. It’s the early ‘80s and heroin has become the new commodity.  With so much money flowing, the respective families gather at a sumptuous private estate in Palermo to pledge solidarity.

Translation: let the killing begin.

Buscetta decides to get out while the getting is good. By which he means trading Rome for Rio where he moves with his third wife and new young family. But he still has a hand in his old profession and the Brazilian government arrests him. They torture him and dangle Wife # 3 from a helicopter, but Buscetta won’t break.

Then he learns that his two adult sons, who opted to remain in Italy, have been murdered. Partly for self-protection, partly for vengeance, he decides to become an informer. He returns to Italy for a series of tumultuous circus-like trials. By the time he’s done, over 300 of his former colleagues have been fingered.

With its decades-spanning plot and teeming cast of characters (most of them middle-aged Italian men with hard movie-Mafioso eyes), “The Traitor” can be hard to follow. And much like Scorsese’s masterful “Goodfellas,” the movie shifts from thriller to dark farce and back again.

When Buscetta, now in the Witness Protection Program, stalks around a snowy New England town in a ski sweater at Christmas, it’s like something out of an SNL skit (until an ominously too-skinny street Santa singing about Sicily spoils the holiday mood).

A scene from “The Traitor”

The movie’s centerpiece, however, is its sequence of courtroom scenes, the so-called “Maxi Trials.” As Buscetta names names, in the background, in cages of sorts, are the dozens of bosses who’ve been rounded up thanks to his cooperation. They rage, spit, strip and shout curses. One even sews his mouth shut so he can’t be forced to testify.

It’s unlike anything you’ve seen – or could’ve made up.

And the picture captures it perfectly, with just the right mix of humor and horror.

“The Traitor” isn’t an easy film. It’s overstuffed with characters and events which can make it hard to follow. And Favino, who looks like a cross between Benicio del Toro and Victor Mature isn’t an easy protagonist. He’s vain, selfish and murderous. But he’s also somehow admirable, embodying, in his way, a certain gangland implacability. Like the Cosa Nostra itself, Buscetta can wait for what he wants.  And wait. And wait.

(You’ll have to wait, too. The picture opens in Atlanta Friday.)

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Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    bud gleason February 27, 2020 8:28 pm

    Eleanor, Judy and I have moved out of hectic

    Eleanor, Judy and I have moved out of hectic Atlanta to tranquil The Villages in Florida.
    We miss a lot but very glad we made the move .. thanks to Maria we keep u with your
    movie news and go to lots … often agreeing with your views.. Hope all well,
    Bud Gleason and Judy Candler

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