By: Trevor Chartrand
While epic in scale with an ambitious, decade-spanning story, The Traitor is ultimately a disappointing, bloated film. This movie sets out to tell the gritty true story of the Italian mafia’s first police informant, Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), however, this lengthy picture gets bogged down with an overstuffed plot. Even with such rich and captivating source material, the film is ultimately uninteresting due to its failure to satisfy in the ‘audience accessibility’ category.
The Traitor is in trouble from minute one, when an exposition dump of text introduces viewers to – at least – a dozen characters, all indistinguishable from one another. The ensemble cast are all collected together for some type of mafia peace treaty, but none of the characters are given a proper introduction – other than their names flashing on the screen for about half a second each. This is soon followed by an extremely confusing montage, in which some of these characters are shown murdering some of the other characters, without any context, rhyme or reason. In the first twenty minutes, we don’t know who is killing who, or why, and by this point the viewer will be feeling so alienated and lost it’s almost impossible to enjoy the material.
This brings up the most fatal flaw suffered by the film. The movie has a large-scale story to tell, but there’s no point of reference to get the audience involved. The film assumes the viewer is going to know the true story, and the real people involved, so it never bothers to give proper introduction to anyone. There’s a lot of plot here, but next to no characterization. Without establishing a likable character, or even any character traits at all, the audience has nothing to relate to and no investment in the story. And with a 150-minute runtime, the filmmakers definitely had plenty of time to develop what could have been a great character study.
The performances are all strong, but again the actors aren’t given a whole lot to work with. Aside from a scene where Buscetta laments the murder of his kids, there’s rarely any opportunity for the characters to show much emotion. A large portion of the film features a series of court cases where facts are dictated in the form of testimony, again without much meaty material for viewers to latch onto. It’s an interesting history lesson more than a narrative film.
Anyone familiar with Buscetta’s story has a better chance of appreciating Marco Bellocchio’s film, but those unaware of the climate of the Italian mafia in the 70s and 80s (which, I assume, is most of us) will have nothing to grasp at in this picture. It’s truly a shame because The Traitor is extremely well made, with great cinematography and art direction. The period costumes and cars are all spot on. If The Traitor had taken the approach of say, David Fincher’s Zodiac – a film about the investigators just as much as the investigation – we could have had something really special here.
And so, despite the involvement of some talented filmmakers and a showcase of great technical style and skill, The Traitor is ultimately a disappointing and unengaging biopic.
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Trevor Chartrand: @OhHaiTrebor