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.