Body Politic: Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor

By Lawrence Garcia

Image result for the traitor marco bellocchio"

The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio’s latest feature, opens during the feast of Saint Rosalia in 1980, in the Sicilian capital of Palermo. In a secluded chateau on the Mediterranean coast, the bosses of the Cosa Nostra meet to celebrate their city’s patron saint, but also to broker a truce between the factions angling for control of the heroin trade. Following this raucous revel, in which we are introduced to our principal figure, Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), the film spins off to a number of locations: to Rio de Janeiro, where Buscetta moves with his family to avoid the subsequent Mafia war, in which a number of allies, relatives, and his two eldest sons would be killed; to Rome, where he would be extradited in 1984 to collaborate with the anti-Mafia Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), providing a total of 487 pages of testimony; and to various cities across the United States, where his family would later be relocated under witness protection after he turns informant. But it is the southern seat of Palermo, the site of what would become the largest anti-Mafia trial in history, that remains at the centre of Bellocchio’s exploration of Sicilian transition and decline.

In setting alone, then, The Traitor quite literally departs from Bellocchio’s late-period output such as Sorelle (2006), Sorelle Mai (2010), and the more recent Blood of My Blood (2015), all set in his northern Italian hometown of Bobbio, where he began his career in furious fashion with Fists in the Pocket back in 1965. As the Italian master has done over the course of his over half-century career, the film takes on the institutions of Church, state, and family—only this time he does so through the guise of a Mafia movie, a genre that, if the film’s box-office success in Italy is any indication, continues to hold the popular imagination. Asked to account for the apparent difference of this latest, his highest-budgeted film to date, Bellocchio replied that: “There was nothing from my private life to draw from… I had to put my personal stamp on the narrative, but leaving out all that psycho-pathological baggage… that, being part of my biography, has seeped into my films.”

In this statement, the now 80-year-old director seems to be pushing back against a certain conception of a late film, one that stresses the impinging facts of old age and illness over the actual practice and experience of art—that is, the formal laws at play within the works themselves. Which isn’t to say that The Traitor does not exemplify what Edward Said, a contemporary of Bellocchio’s, terms “late style.” In an essay on “the relationship between bodily condition and aesthetic style,” Said draws from Theodor Adorno, who, in writing on Beethoven’s latter-day work, objected to the entirely inadequate critical tendency to fall back on an artist’s personal biography, to accord the bare facts of life undue explanatory power, and to effectively relegate late works “to the outer reaches of art, in the vicinity of document” (say, a personal notebook or a diary). Reworking one of Adorno’s turns of phrase, Said sums up the matter of late style as “what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality.” With The Traitor, then, Bellocchio is in effect resisting the tendencies that Adorno objects to, distancing the film from the biographical thrust of his recent work—both Sorelle and its subsequent iteration Sorelle Mai starred his own family members, and were shot piecemeal over a number of years—and examining a particularly Sicilian reality that, as a northerner, is not his own. And in a sense he goes even further: In focusing on Buscetta’s pugnacious personality, Bellocchio takes the very perception of biographical reality—its provisions as well as its pitfalls—as his underlying subject.

For Said, the exemplary late work is Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s famed novel The Leopard, which like The Traitor opens in Palermo—only over a hundred years earlier, at the crucial juncture of Italian unification. Posthumously published in 1958, after which it was adapted by Luchino Visconti into a film of sumptuous stasis, it is arguably the most significant, or at the very least the most popular rendering of the Southern Question, observing through the elderly Don Fabrizio, the Sicilian Prince of Salina (played by Burt Lancaster in the film version), the final collapse of the aristocracy, and the period of transformation that would create the precise conditions that gave rise to the Sicilian Mafia. And if Favino’s imposing figure recalls Lancaster’s—and like Fabrizio, Buscetta is without a satisfactory heir apparent—that’s perhaps no coincidence. Like the Prince before him, Buscetta is representative of an old order, in his case a version of the Cosa Nostra that in the ’80s was undergoing a marked change, and that no longer exists, and perhaps never did.

Image result for the leopard 1963"
The Leopard (1963)

Although he was present at the opening feast, Buscetta officially held only the rank of “soldier,” the base unit of the Cosa Nostra’s organizational pyramid, which was, before his testimony, opaque to most outsiders and lawmen. In the act of informing, he thus highlighted a point of weakness in a group that could be brought down by a single mafiosi breaking omertà. If the Cosa Nostra’s footsoldiers were previously indispensable to the organization’s movements and operations, with their bodies at the juncture of both production and profit—they bore the physical risk, and had to be compensated accordingly—Corleonesi bosses like Salvatore Riina, who were consolidating the Cosa Nostra into a globalized, increasingly neoliberal economy, were attempting to neutralize that very dependence and thus maximize control of their rank and file. (That Buscetta’s actions nonetheless dealt a harsh blow to the organization speaks less to the resilience of the old methods, than to the tensions endemic to any transition.) If Buscetta was representative of a so-called “traditional” order, then Riina was emblematic of the new Cosa Nostra, which had merely dropped the former pretenses to nobility, allowing the organization to exercise its power more efficiently, less bound by territory, and less subject to narcissistic personalities and womanizing whims.

Not for nothing, after all, does The Traitor, during the period where Buscetta is testifying to Judge Falcone, skip back to a former prison stint, where he’s visited in his cell by a sex worker. And it’s likewise crucial that a late confrontation between Buscetta and Riina, after the latter is finally captured by the authorities in 1993 after being tried and sentenced in absentia, explicitly highlights the marked difference between the two men. After the matter of his three marriages is brought up, Buscetta taunts Riina by calling his virility into question and noting how he expected from Riina “a lion’s roar” but heard only “the squeak of a mouse.” Imagining himself a leonine figure such as Lancaster’s noble Leopard, Buscetta perhaps considers this a victory of a sort. But it’s less clear that the diminutive, preternaturally composed Riina would see it the same way, for vermin are less easily spotted and thus less easily caught. And they multiply quicker.

The complex relationship between these individual personalities, the Cosa Nostra, and the contemporaneous sociopolitical context comes to the fore in the finest sustained passage of The Traitor: the famed Maxi Trial in Palermo, in which 475 mafiosi were tried over a period of nearly six years. Positioned at the centre of the film, this thirty-minute stretch stands as nothing less than its conceptual fulcrum. It might even serve as a kind of summative statement for Bellocchio, whose career has taken up the endless, enduring subject of national change, and who here observes and delineates all the powers of the State brought to bear on an extralegal organization—in effect testing the workings of the republic that emerged out of Italian unification. Here, we are far from the inquisitorial methods of the 17th century Catholic witch trial in Blood of My Blood, where a series of bodily tortures are meant to be constitutive of absolute truth; and if the woman’s body should expire in the course of its happening, no matter, for her soul will be where it should. A shot in that earlier film—of monks circling a woman, searching for the mark of the beast on her body—finds a belated echo here in a funereal nightmare of Buscetta’s, in which his prone, catatonic figure is crowded about by his family and sealed into a coffin. But it’s significant that this sinister, subconscious evocation is relegated to a personal pre-trial vision, a dark night of the soul—for the private matters of the afterlife have no place in the modern Italian state.

Certainly, it has no place in the cavernous, still-existing octagonal courtroom in which the Maxi Trial takes place, built adjacent to the Ucciardone prison in Palermo expressly for the occasion, and which Bellocchio presents with acute attention to its spatial organization. The director begins with a series of ribald disruptions from various mob bosses (not to mention those of their wives from up in the viewing deck), recognizing the supreme irony that the courtroom, the highest expression of law and order, should play host to such carnivalesque spectacle. But it soon becomes apparent that their protestations and disruptions are merely that—and that the age where such actions might have had the power to incite a crowd to overturn a verdict is long gone. “The gaze is the expression of reality,” says one cigar-swilling boss, quoting from French writer Michel Butor, while expressing his defendant’s right to see and be seen, and his anxiety at being observed by umpteen guards. But for all of the supposed transparency of the trial—and here we leave aside the question of the trial’s rightness—the mechanisms of justice remain in crucial ways opaque. The gallery of cells in which the mafiosi are held along the rear of the courtroom will, following the final sentencing, be transformed into a panoptic grid of surveillance screens in a maximum security prison. Like the lions and hyenas seen in footage deployed at a few junctures in the film—and one might as well add leopards to the list—the Cosa Nostra of old has been studied, categorized, and caged. What we are presented with is a veritable rogues’ gallery, a hundred years on, the Italian state having transitioned into a Foucauldian exercise of power of individualized information. As in the boldly bifurcated Blood of My Blood, which leaps from the religious horrors of a post-medieval age to the active present, Bellocchio subtly, uncannily evokes collapsing temporalities, charting with a single judicious juxtaposition an entire century of change. The Cosa Nostra would adapt accordingly.

The Traitor

What hasn’t changed, though, is the human body—its limitations, its decay, its ultimate expiration. This is the subject of Bellocchio’s Dormant Beauty (2012), in which the body of Eluana Englaro, comatose for 17 years, becomes the locus about which a series of battles—personal, political, and religious—are waged; and it likewise comes to the fore in the latter half of The Traitor. Like Lampedusa’s novel, Bellocchio’s film proceeds in a series of linear, but discontinuous episodes, each illuminated with an intense presentness, not unlike the camera flashes that recur throughout the runtime, and which are explicitly linked to death. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the opening feast of Saint Rosalia recalls the famed passage of Visconti’s screen version of The Leopard (“A Ball: November 1862” in the source). But unlike Don Fabrizio, whose acceptance of age, death, and exile stands in contrast to the turmoil brewing about him, Buscetta refuses any such serenity, any acceptance of his body’s timeliness. Asked of his age by friend and fellow informant Totuccio Contorno (Luigi Lo Cascio), he replies: “Still young,” while at that very moment dyeing the roots of his graying hair. Later, dissatisfied with his American exile and plagued by paranoia, he returns to Italy to testify in the trial of former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti—though at this point one sees not a triumphal homecoming, but the flailings of an anachronistic figure who’s outlived his time.

In the most literal sense, The Traitor is indeed a Mafia movie, but it’s unusual in the way it treats the genre’s explosive enticements. A set of assassination scenes—including an unbroken point-of-view shot from within Judge Falcone’s car as the highway detonates beneath him—ostensibly align with conventional form. But fragmentary and truncated as they are, their presentation might even be reckoned careless—if it weren’t for Bellocchio’s constant emphasis on how such events are then circulated, transmitted, narrativized, and otherwise transformed. Following Falcone’s murder, a group of mafiosi in rural Italy celebrate by spitting on the television broadcasting the news, while across the Atlantic, Buscetta and his wife witness the funeral proceedings for those killed in what would become known as the Capaci massacre. Like The Leopard’s lingering symbol, Don Fabrizio’s dog, stuffed after its death and kept by his daughter Concetta, The Traitor retains only the symbolic husk of the Mafia movie, and carves up Buscetta’s life into its final, though unfixed form—a kind of gestural myth that will persist beyond the lives of the people who carried out those very gestures. As the dual meaning of the title suggests—it can refer either to Buscetta’s status as informant, or his charge that the new Cosa Nostra betrayed the organization’s traditional values—what matters is who’s telling the story. 

It’s in this pointed rejection of narrative closure that The Traitor affirms its supreme status as late film. Fundamental here is the subjectivity of a created being on whom death is imposed—which for Adorno was the crucial aspect of such works: “The power of subjectivity in the late works of art is the irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves… It leaves only fragments behind, and communicates itself, like a cipher, only through the blank spaces from which it has disengaged itself.” At the very end of Bellocchio’s film, we see the conclusion of a story that Buscetta first told Falcone years earlier—a parable about his first Mafia-sanctioned murder, which unfolded onscreen roughly a hundred minutes prior, but which was never actually completed. And if we only belatedly realize that it wasn’t, that’s likely because we know how it ends—in a confrontation with death, with Buscetta’s mark sitting at an empty table after a celebration, awaiting the inevitable. But we watch the scene unfold all the same, a final fragment apart from its original telling, its teller having taken his leave long ago.

In an outward concession to the biopic template, The Traitor concludes with a line of onscreen text about how Buscetta “died in his bed as he’d wished,” which may very well be—though when we last leave him in Bellocchio’s film, his sallow-faced figure is on the back porch of his suburban Miami home, asleep in a chair, a shotgun in his arms. Buscetta died of cancer in 2000—though after a point, the manner of death ceases to matter. He is dead, just as Falcone died in 1992, just as Lampedusa himself died in 1957 before his novel was even published, and just as Bellocchio must eventually die (though let it not be for a long time). The feast is over; the guests have gone. All that remains are the tales that percolate around it, the currents of history that continue to be shaped by the innumerable enfoldings of myth and fact, and the works of art that endure after those that created them have passed on.

The Traitor played the Vancouver Italian Film Festival in January. It opens in limited release on February 7.

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