Palermo, 1980. There’s a party going on and various mafia types are dancing with their wives. Or possibly with someone else’s wives. Either way, there’s a ceasefire going on and everyone’s celebrating. Tomasso is Mein Host, and everything is going swimmingly till he notices a body on the beach below. It’s Tomasso’s son, who isn’t dead but he’s severely out of it. Tomasso tends to him, then returns to the party.
We see photos from the party, with everyone’s name written below. In the following 15 minutes, we watch nearly everyone on the photos being wiped out. Sometimes it’s the standard duty being shot while you’re driving. But there’s also the priest who’s shot when he’s giving mass and the one who’s killed in his bed while making love. Looks like the ceasefire is over.
Tomasso’s having none of this, and skips off to a villa in Rio. He lives it up for a while, but then he learns that two of his sons, who had stayed in Italy, were also killed in the gang war. He also starts to attract the attention of the local police. They arrest him, beat him up and dangle his wife out of a helicopter, but he refuses to give them any information. So, they extradite him back to Italy.
Facing a lifetime in jail, he finally starts to crack and is ready to name names. He does all this in the name of loyalty to the Cosa Nostra – or at very least the old version. It’s no longer the organisation he joined as a youth. Then it was about smuggling cigarettes, now they’ve started dealing heroin. Besides which, staying loyal to his childhood mates did nothing to save his sons.
Cue a great set piece court scene. Dozens of mafiosi are in cells at the back of the court. One ostentatiously smokes a cigar (“for health reasons”), one strips naked. Others just stand back and stare menacingly. When Tomasso appears in court, they start heckling and shouting loud abuse. A couple of them take the opportunity to cross-examine him, and contradict everything he says.
Case over, Tomasso and his wife go into witness protection in the US. He spends a while living in the suburbs, buying assault rifles from the local supermarkets. But there’s still an itch that he needs to scratch. He returns to Italy to accuse a leading politician of ordering a couple of hits. Cue more court sequences which don’t differ significantly from the previous round.
The Traitor is full of stylish moments, sharp cinematography and imposing music. And yet, it did feel a little too much like one damn thing after another – and seeing as the film lasts 2½ hours, that’s an awful lot of damn things. The highly impressive scenes never seemed to be fully connected into a coherent whole.
I have a reasonable acquaintance with contemporary Italian politics, but never really got a sense of the importance of what was going on, or its connection with other social developments. So, for all that this was based on a true story, as they say, it owes much more of a debt to Hollywood mafia films than with the real-life events that it was depicting.
Tomasso is neither really a hero nor a villain. He’s an ageing thug in hair dye with a touch of the Johnny Connor from Corrie about him. Since he has little charm and is mainly motivated by a self-preservation instinct, you never really feel for him, but his adversaries are not the charming mafia figures of the Godfather and the Sopranos. This may be closer to real life than Hollywood usually goes, but it leaves you with no-one left to cheer for.
Having said all that, boy are the high points impressive. From the individual hits, a couple of which hit you out of nowhere, to the breathlessly intimidating atmosphere of the trials, this is a lesson in stylish film making – one that could have be improved with a more engaging plot, sure, but you can’t have everything. Though they could have still cut at least half an hour without damaging anything.