‘The Traitor’: How one man brought the Italian Cosa Nostra down
Pierfrancesco Favino as Tommaso Buscetta

The Traitor, a new film directed by Marco Bellocchio, opens in Los Angeles and New York Jan. 31 and will soon be in theaters nationwide. It’s the true story, fictionalized for the big screen naturally, of Tommaso Buscetta, the man who almost single-handedly brought down the Cosa Nostra—or Mafia in common parlance.

It’s certainly not the first film about Cosa Nostra (“our thing”), and likely won’t be the last, but this one focuses on Italy and the series of trials in the 1980s that collectively convicted 366 crime leaders to prison sentences. Many of them are still in detention and will be, presumably, for the rest of their lives.

This Italian-Brazilian-German-French production clocks in at just over two and a half hours—plus previews—so consider this your soiler alert. The amount of violence can be overwhelming—probably not the right flick for a first date—yet little seems superfluous. The film has a large cast of characters, but the standout is Buscetta, our flawed, conflicted, life-loving, vulnerable hero, played to stunning perfection by Pierfrancesco Favino.

In the immediate post-war years the Sicilian Mafia flexed its muscle by relatively tame but profitable enterprises such as smuggling cigarettes. The American occupation authorities may have had a role in reviving the Mafia, setting free many of its members from jail, but this early phase is not discussed in the film. I only bring it in because Buscetta, born in 1928, joined Cosa Nostra at the age of 15, just as the Americans got there. How much did the Americans know, and when? Might there have been a Mafia connection to their campaign to keep Italy from going communist?

By the early 1980s, the focus of the Mafia was the traffic in heroin, a far more profitable and dangerous business, to which fell victim also many Italians, including Mafiosi family members. Buscetta, who always claimed to be a soldato, a mere soldier in the Cosa Nostra ranks, not a capo or boss of anyone, left Italy with his beautiful Brazilian wife Cristina, and no doubt with his amassed riches, to hide out in a magnificent villa overlooking Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay.

In the meantime, back home in Palermo, Sicily, vendettas among and between Cosa Nostra families result in the deaths of his sons (he had children by his two earlier marriages as well, seven in all). This is the time of the military rule in Brazil, and Buscetta is violently captured, tortured, and extradited to Italy.

There, while insisting he is no informer, he starts cooperating with Judge Giovanni Falcone (who is more of a prosecuting attorney than a judge in American terms), to build a case against Cosa Nostra. He claims he is still honoring his loyalty to the omertà he swore to as a young man, the code of silence and honor meant to keep Cosa Nostra’s business an in-house affair. At the time he vowed his allegiance, Cosa Nostra was an “honorable” organization, never, for example, targeting children, women or priests. But all that has changed and Buscetta cannot feel bound by loyalty to what his mob “family” has become.

Much of the rest of the film has to do with the trials, but there are also flashbacks to Buscetta’s past crimes, personal family issues, and his relative peace of mind in Brazil. The film takes on a docu-drama character as the events fly by—Palermo, Rome, Rio, prisons, courtrooms, dream sequences. The courtroom confrontations between Buscetta “the traitor” and his former Cosa Nostra comrades are fiery exchanges in the somewhat zoo-like atmosphere of the proceedings. Bellocchio draws colorful portraits of the other Cosa Nostra characters

Philosophically one might say the filmmaker is concerned with the theme of repentance, especially as sin, confession and forgiveness are such prominent aspects of Catholic theology. Although the film is seeped in Italian Catholic practice, a viewer is entitled to ask how deeply those values are truly held, and how much is but the superstructure of culture.

The use of music in the film is notable, suffused as it is with opera, popular tunes, even Spanish-language romantic songs. One Sicilian song is used quite chillingly: The Buscetta family (using a false name) are celebrating Christmas with a dinner out in an American mall, where they are enjoying relative anonymity under the witness protection program, when a folksinger dressed as Santa Claus approaches their table and pointedly directs a patriotic Sicilian song right to Buscetta’s face. In other words, we have tracked you down: Be very afraid!

Buscetta lived the rest of his life forever in a state of fear, but died peacefully, against all odds, in 2000. His wife is still living somewhere in America under an assumed identity.

In another scene, as the names of prominent Mafiosi are recited along with the prison sentences, the soundtrack plays the famous “Va pensiero” chorus from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco. It’s the chorus of the Hebrew exiles in Babylon, signaling that the prisoners will now be “exiles” themselves in the dysfunctional social system they have themselves brought into being that is now heroically trying to right itself.

I am not well informed as to the present circumstances of Cosa Nostra in Italy, but the thrust of the film suggests that whatever lingering influence it may hold, its back has been broken.

The film includes an amusing “sidebar” about long-serving Christian Democratic Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (1919-2013), who served several intermittent terms from 1972 to 1992. Buscetta meets him in prison, where the politician had been held on charges that he had conspired with Cosa Nostra in the murder of a journalist. Though initially found guilty, he was eventually acquitted on legal technicalities. This episode is a bit of a teaser, not fully developed: Italian viewers, more than American ones, will be more familiar with the case. Yet it is brought in as a source of comic relief in an otherwise rather grim tale.

Another aspect of the story that is used as a source of humor is the unique Sicilian accent. During the trial, a fellow informer testifies in such a broad dialect that he is admonished to “speak Italian” so the court can understand him.

The cinematography is highly appealing, making a film about some despicable characters eminently watchable. The trailer can be viewed here.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. His latest project is translating the nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, the first volumes available from International Publishers NY.