Interview: Marco Bellocchio and Pierfrancesco Favino on Telling a Different Story About the Mafia in “The Traitor”

In asking Marco Bellocchio how he got interested in the story of the mobster Tommaso Buscetta for his latest film “The Traitor,” the legendary director quickly turns the question around.

”What’s so interesting about it?” asks Bellocchio, with the help of a translator, clearly enjoying putting someone else in the hot seat. “Is it because this story doesn’t belong to my natural course? If you’re familiar with my movies, this is atypical from what I usually direct, but I just liked the story.”

At 80, Bellocchio has lost none of the fire that he had when he first exploded onto the international stage in 1965 with “Fists in the Pocket,” and he has a point in flipping the benign question when it is at the heart of “The Traitor,” questioning why the mafia continues to capture the imagination of so many when it’s been such a destructive force in his native Italy and beyond. Ironically, the mafia’s mystique may contribute to making “The Traitor” Bellocchio’s most accessible film, a rollicking ride through three decades over which Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino) attempts to extract himself from the life of crime, finding his way into witness protection with the help of Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi) to become to key witness to testify against his former associates in the Sicilian mafia in the Maxi Trial, a six-year court case where security was such an issue that it took place in a bunker created inside a prison.

Bellocchio flexes his muscles as a master filmmaker, delivering the visceral thrills that make Buscetta’s criminal activities so hard to walk away from, but subverts them to ultimately demonstrate why he has to, building on Favino’s chameleonic turn as a made man who navigates a variety of different worlds – from his family life, his criminal life and his negotiations with prosecutors – revealing only a part of himself in each environment yet bringing his collective knowledge to survive in all of them. It’s a dazzling drama that Italy selected to represent the country at the Academy Awards and while Bellocchio and Favino were in Los Angeles last fall for the AFI Fest in advance of the film’s American release this week, the two spoke about changing the narrative around the mafia, figuring out how to accurately tell the story of a man who devoted so much time to crafting his own image and filming inside a literal hall of mirrors.

I understand you went to Sicily to do research. Is this drawn from the reality you saw there?

Marco Bellocchio: Of course, we started with the research, and then we traveled to Sicily [where] we have got to knowing and meet [people who inspired the] characters, both on the sides of Buschetta and on the side of the judge Falcone. Then we went deeper and deeper, especially when it comes to language and the Sicilian dialect, which is a language on its own. It’s different from Italian. This is the necessary research when you develop a movie and then we started to develop the more fictional side – the more personal themes linked to Buschetta, for instance the aspect that Buschetta likes opera. There are parts of the movie that are very melodramatic, like the Italian opera, and this is a chord that goes back to my movies because I come from opera and lyrical compositions, so there are connections to my style and personality. And then the amazing work by Pierfrancesco, who found this character and enriched him with a complexity of feelings that belongs specifically to him.

Pierfrancesco Favino: Going to Palermo was absolutely important because it’s one thing if you think or read about it and it’s another if you go and the first thing I noticed is that if you’re not from Palermo, you won’t understand how much the whole city is influenced by the presence of mafia. In the same family, you might have people belonging to the criminal organization and people don’t, but everybody knows who belongs to it and who doesn’t and that was very important to our story, especially because of Judge Falcone. He came from an area that was very close to the one where Buschetta was born, so he knew all of the non-verbal codes that mafia people had. That gave him the chance to be respected by Buschetta – and don’t get me wrong, but [that only] means that they can trust you [to the point] that will give me the chance to talk to you and tell you things that I know you will understand.

There’s a very complicated system of codes in the mafia way of communicating. Either you know it or you don’t, so when you know it, you will get rid of things that will look to you absolutely impossible to understand. And that’s what gave Falcone the chance to understand what Buschetta was saying. In order to understand it [myself], I had to learn all of those different languages. Marco was hinting to the Sicilian language and I wanted to learn the language of Palermo in the ‘50s, because this is where our character starts and it’s completely different from where it is today. We just get the surface of it, but all of the different layers hidden there are understandable only to people belonging to the mafia or studying it very deeply.

Was it a unique challenge to play a character that covers this much time?

Pierfrancesco Favino: It is a challenge, but it’s wonderful for an actor to have the chance to go there. There’s also something very particular about this guy, who went through several plastic surgeries and the more you try to look younger, you look older, so for me not having his age, it’s been really helpful to use prosthetics because that gave the idea that I was older much more than it might have been if I had to age myself through makeup. And there’s also another aspect that I thought was very, very curious – his father used to make mirrors, so he’s been changing his face all his life while saying, “I’m always me,” looking for an identity and hiding himself all of his life, coming from a family that makes mirrors. That was very, very interesting on a psychological level.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is the assassination in the hall of mirrors. Was that difficult to pull off?

Marco Bellocchio: It was quite difficult, because we shot it as we would on a stage. Buschetta comes from a good guy family, so the father had a glass mirror shop where all the brothers worked and then Tomasso Buschetta decided to swear his oath to Cosa Nostra, so that’s part of his family business where it’s not really the Cosa Nostra and it’s a key moment when he goes the other way with the bad guys. If you want to pick cinematic references, [I was inspired by] “The Lady of Shanghai.”

In general, what was it like to show the presence of the mafia when so often they’re off-screen?

[Many] scenes are inspired by true events, but then we elaborated. Even though [Buschetta] is in prison, [we wanted to show he] is able to control the prison and do whatever he wants, so we have the prostitute coming in and rides the bicycle [around the halls]. Then there is the scene with the crowd celebrating the mafia giving them work [in the streets] that’s another true event that we elaborated on cinematically. When the Maxi trial happened in Italy, the mafia was giving [them] work, and during the Maxi trial, the work stopped, so these construction workers were protesting against the Maxi trial because they didn’t have a job.

The trial is so dynamic in a single location. What was it like to create that atmosphere on set?

Marco Bellocchio: The whole trial was all filmed by Italian TV, so we one year’s stock of footage of the whole trial, and we had to synthesize in 20 minutes, so of course, we made research, but we also reinvented it. We were lucky to film in the same place where the Maxi trial was held, and we were inspired by the bunker that they created to allow this trial [because] this trial had a theatrical, operatic tone. All the attendees – the judge, the prisoners, the spectators – tried to create obstacles in a very dramatic, very melodramatic way. And we really wanted to preserve and defend the Sicilian language. In fact, we put subtitles in the Italian version to let the Sicilian play in all its grandeur and power. The Sicilian language becomes one of the lead characters of this trial because it too has a theatrical dimension.

Pierfrancesco Savino: Once we stepped in there, it was very helpful because it’s like an amphitheater, like the Greeks had, so it’s weird because they built it just like an old ancient stage, as if something very ancient was happening.

Was it wild being inside that?

Pierfrancesco Savino: Yeah, my heart started beating very, very fast because I’ve been watching those images for months. I had been in the court before, but the day I didn’t have to shoot, I just stepped in and I felt my heart started beating because I knew we were doing something very important for us. It might sound bizarre [to foreigners], but for us, mafia is not a movie genre. It’s something that changed our life and it’s a mentality that’s still there, so making movies about this, it’s making movies about what we would like our country to be.

[The film] was very successful [in Italy] because Judge Falcone is a figure that’s very well-remembered, even in schools now, but a lot of people don’t know how we got to that point. So the movie has a cinematic quality, but at the same time, it also has a civic importance and I’m very proud that through this a lot of youngsters got to know that history. You might have the feeling it’s a mainstream movie because it’s a mafia movie, but we should consider the big difference that this mafia movie has with all of the mafia movies that we’ve seen until now. Those are fictional and this is based on a true story, and I personally have the feeling that we’re seeing the mafia for the first time as it really is. The people who belong to this criminal organization have no glamour at all. You don’t want to be any of them and this is quite rare, even for Italian cinema.

Was there any detail that unlocked the character for you?

Pierfrancesco Savino: At the end of all of the readings and all of the videos that I watched, it was clear what I could know was what he wanted me to know because he created his own chronicles, his own memory through all the interviews he did and the books that he wrote with big journalists, so if I wanted to find something that wasn’t his idea of himself, I had to dig somewhere else. The wall [he put up] didn’t have one single break, so I started trying to dig into the holes I could find here and there. For example, he decided what kind of tone of voice he could use as if he were an actor. He was always in control of what he was saying. That says a lot about a human being, and it’s a behavioral aspect that might lead you to a few questions – like what does he want me to perceive? What is he afraid of? What’s that he’s hiding?

There are loads of things that are hidden there on a personal, political and criminal level, so I started meeting with lawyers and talking to people belonging to one side or the other in order to see if my intuitions were right. I couldn’t speak to the family because they didn’t want to participate, but then after we made the movie, a documentary came out, and there was family footage that was impossible to find before and surprisingly enough, or maybe not, what I saw was exactly what we made. The image of the men is pretty much the one that we portrayed, and when he feels something, as Marco was saying, there’s something about me that I managed to put in the journey of this man because in the end, the story is very clear – there’s a guy who decides to join a criminal organization when he’s very young and then he feels trapped and betrayed by it. He wants to survive, but he knows the only way out is to die, and I think this is a tragic journey, but it’s also what makes the movie likable for people that don’t belong to our culture. In the end, it’s a journey we can really connect to as an audience.

“The Traitor” opens on January 31st in Los Angeles at the Landmark and New York at Film Forum and the Film Society at Lincoln Center.