Tag Archives: B+

THE TRAITOR (IL TRADITORE)

Producers: Beppe Caschetto, Michael Weber, Viola Fügen, Caio Gullane, Fabiano Gullane, Michel Merkt, Gregory Gajos, Arthur Hallereau, Pierre-François Piet, Olivier Père, Rémi Burah, Meinolf Zurhorst, Alexandra Henochsberg and Simone Gattoni   Director: Marco Bellocchio   Screenplay: Marco Bellocchio, Ludovica Rampoldi, Valia Santella and Francesco Piccolo   Cast: Pierfrancesco Favino, Maria Fernandez Cândido, Fabrizio Ferracane, Luigi Lo Cascio, Nicola Cali, Giovanni Calcagno, Fausto Russo Alesi, Bruno Cariello, Alberto Storti, Vincenzo Pirrotta, Goffredo Bruno, Gabriele Cicirello, Paride Cicirello, Elia Schilton, Alessio Praticò, Giuseppe Di Marca and Pier Giorgio Bellocchio    Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Grade:  B+

In the 1960s mob informant Joe Valachi, a member of the Genovese crime family in New York, shattered the traditional code of silence and described the workings of the American Mafia, or Cosa Nostra as he called it, in televised congressional testimony that galvanized the public and spurred further governmental investigation and prosecution.  Two decades later Tommaso Buscetta broke ranks with the Sicilian Mafia and became the star witness for Italian judges determined to dismantle the organization that had long controlled the drug trade and terrorized the citizenry.

Valachi’s story spawned a mediocre movie with Charles Bronson in 1972; Buscetta’s is now dramatized in a much better one, an epic-length docu-drama treatment from veteran writer-director Marco Bellocchio.  Long, leisurely and skipping around chronologically and geographically, “The Traitor” requires a viewer’s patience and attention to appreciate, but for those willing to tune into its wavelength it will be engrossing—although it would help to have some prior knowledge about the events it covers.  (A scorecard of major players would also be helpful; the film provides one, of a sort, via character identifications along the way, but they pass by so quickly that they barely register.)

The film begins by introducing Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino) in 1980 at a gathering of the Mafia families on the Sicilian coast—a peace council of sorts.  But he realizes that the organization has changed from its erstwhile “ideals,” with the Corleone faction headed by Totò Riina (Nicola Cali) growing ever more ruthless and murderous.  He decides to leave Sicily, and putting his grown sons Benedetto (Gabriele Cicirello) and Antonio (Paride Cicirello) in the care of his friend Pippo Caló (Fabrizio Ferracane), he departs for Brazil, where he will live with his third wife Cristina (Maria Fernandez Cândido) and their kids while gang warfare rages back home, and many of his relatives—including his sons—are killed or simply disappear.

His life in Rio is abruptly interrupted when he is arrested in 1983 by the Brazilian government for extradition to Italy.  After recovering from a suicide attempt he agrees to be interviewed by straight-arrow Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), with whom he gradually develops a bond and in whose legal campaign against the Mafia he agrees to become the star witness.  The upshot is a chaotic trial in which scads of Mafia members scream at him from the cages at the back of the courtroom as he testifies and some of them challenge him in one-on-one debates.  (American audiences unfamiliar with Italian judicial processes will probably be surprised at their propensity for raucousness.)  Many convictions result.

The notorious assassination of Falcone in 1992 leads Buscetta, who had been moved into the Witness Protection Program in the United States along with his fellow informer Totuccio Contorno (Luigi Lo Cascio), to return to Italy and testify against Riina himself.  Another courtroom faceoff results.  A sort of coda covers his testimony against Italian politician Giulio Andreotti (Giuseppe Di Marca) and the sharp examination of him by Andreotti’s lawyer (Alberto Storti), before returning to the United States to briefly show his last years.  (Buscetta died in 2000.)

Bellocchio covers this twenty-year period—there is very little background material on the first fifty years of Buscetta’s life—in a relatively sober, straightforward fashion, despite the jumps in time and place. Francesca Calvelli’s editing helps to keep things intelligible despite the vast array of characters, while Andrea Castorina’s production design and Vladan Radovic’s camerawork only rarely call undue attention to themselves.

Favino anchors the film with a compellingly gruff performance of a man who says that he’s acting out of a sense of honor rather than self-interest,–a proposition some viewers might dispute—and Lo Cascio provides excellent contrast as the more extroverted, reckless Contorno; Alesi brings appropriate dignity to the dedicated Falcone.  The rest of the cast ably support them with sharp, vivid turns.

There have, of course, been great fiction films about the Mafia, the “Godfather” movies most notably.  But there’s certainly room for a solid, fact-based work like “The Traitor,” which brings the tale of a significant chapter in recent Mafia history to the screen with skill, and invites debate about the character of the man who propelled it.    

THE TWO POPES

Producers: Dan Lin, Jonathan Eirich and Tracey Seaward   Director: Fernando Meirelles   Screenplay: Anthony McCarten   Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce, Juan Minujin, Luís Grecco, Chrístína Banegas, María Ucedo, Renato Scarpa, Sidney Cole, Achille Brugnini, Federico Torre, Germán de Sílva, Lisandro Fíks, Willie Jonan and Nicola Acunzo   Distributor: Netflix

Grade:  B+

When Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013, it shocked not just Catholics but people of all faiths.  It didn’t set a precedent—a handful of popes had laid aside their office previously, perhaps the most notable being Celestine V, who stepped down having served for only a few months in 1294, after issuing a decree in advance declaring the legality of such an action.  But Benedict’s act was seen as a seismic shift, because he was a rigidly conservative traditionalist, and the man elected to succeed him, Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, who took the name Francis, not only brought a spirit of humility and simplicity to the office but also seemed to promise progressive reform in church doctrine.

Whether Francis has delivered on that expectation is open to debate, but Anthony McCarten seizes on the idea that the transfer of power represented a major change of attitude, and first in his play and now in the screenplay adapted from it, he imagines a scenario explaining how it happened.  As directed by Fernando Meirelles with Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce as Benedict and the future Francis, it makes for a master class in acting that’s also a cheeky exercise in historically-based speculation.

The question McCarten poses is simply this: what if in 2012 Bergoglio, who had been the runner-up to Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, in the 2005 papal conclave (depicted here in a brief prologue), asked the pope for permission to resign his episcopal office?  And what if Benedict had asked him to come to Rome to discuss the matter?  What sort of conversation might they have had? 

The answer he provides is: one that begins rather stiffly, but ends in the two men becoming friends who agree to disagree in their approaches to dogma.  It also confirms Benedict in his decision to resign the papacy—and, it is implied, to throw his considerable support to Bergoglio as his successor.  (He’s come to believe, you see, that despite his concerns about the cardinal’s radical views, the church needs a change of attitude in leadership, from his stuffily scholarly mien to Bergoglio’s humble, good-naturedly friendly approach.)

Perhaps some of the factors that McCarten has confected to explain Benedict’s decision have a smidgen of truth to them; it’s impossible to say, since the emeritus pope has never opened up about them (relying on his health problems as the cause), and doubtlessly never will.  But his imaginings allow for a quasi-debate between the two men that has its deliciously impish moments (as when they share an impromptu meal behind the Sistine Chapel and even a brief farewell tango, and—at the very end—has them watching a soccer match together) while also leaving room for more serious matters. 

Those darker elements center on the men’s pasts.  Benedict’s formative years in Nazi Germany—and his membership in the Hitler Youth—are alluded to briefly.  But the major attention is given to Bergoglio’s actions as head of the Jesuit Order in Argentina during the years of brutal military rule, when he took an accommodating attitude toward the regime, going so far as to fail to stand up for more radical members of the Order, some of whom had been his mentors and friends.  Indeed, Bergoglio’s life as a young man, in which he is played by Juan Minujin, is portrayed in an extended flashback showing his abrupt choice of the priesthood over marriage to a woman he’s long loved, his calculatedly submissive negotiations with members of the ruling junta, and the years of penance (and criticism he received after being returned to a position of leadership in the Argentine church) after the restoration of civilian rule.

In his conversations with Benedict, in which he protests that a papal resignation would do terrible damage to the church, Bergoglio also emphasizes that his past actions disqualify him for consideration for the papacy.  Benedict disagrees, and the suggestion is that every candidate is bound to have something in his (or to be really radical, her) background that’s a sign of human imperfection. 

While McCarten embeds such significant concerns in the script, and Hopkins and Pryce (and Minujin as well) play them very well, what most viewers are likely to embrace are the lighter elements of Benedict and Bergoglio’s interaction—when they reveal their very different musical tastes, for example.  Both actors are superb throughout.  Hopkins embodies Benedict’s sense of isolation, his recognition of his own failings and his need for human contact, and Pryce exudes Bergoglio’s geniality in scenes with ordinary folk in Buenos Aires and Rome (and a papal gardener played by Nicola Acunzo) while showing the undercurrent of urgency in his opinions.  Their scenes together shift beautifully from graciousness to passion to anger to camaraderie to grudging mutual understanding; it’s like watching a vaudeville soft shoe routine impeccably performed.  Minujin is excellent as well, and the supporting cast is fine throughout.  Meirelles’ astute direction, aided by Cesar Charlone’s fluid cinematography and Fernando Stutz’s expert editing, ensures that what’s essentially a two-hander never feels staid or static. 

One also has to express admiration for Mark Tildesley’s production design, which recreates the Vatican remarkably well—including what amounts to a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel on a soundstage.  CGI is part of the process, of course, but the effect is completely convincing. 

Like Peter Morgan’s exercises in imaginative historical recreations, “The Two Popes” depends to a great extent on the quality of acting to persuade.  With Hopkins and Pryce, it’s at the highest possible level, and the result is both absorbing and enjoyable.