Pierfrancesco Favino in The Traitor, a biopic that tells the story of Tommaso Buscetta, a Mafia foot soldier who turned on the organization after it killed or ‘disappeared’ a number of his relatives. Photo: Sony Classics Credit: Sony Classics

Will wonders never cease — I’ve finally found a biopic I can heartily recommend! It probably helps that Il Traditore (The Traitor, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 14) tells the story of a man I previously knew nothing about: Tommaso Buscetta, a Mafia foot soldier who turned on the organization after it killed or ‘disappeared’ a number of his relatives, including two of his children.

Buscetta is portrayed by Pierfrancesco Favino, whose physical resemblance to his character (as well as his passing resemblance to Benicio del Toro) bolsters an impressive performance. As directed by Marco Bellocchio (whose career began in 1965 with the excellent Fists in the Pocket), Favino depicts Buscetta as a Cosa Nostra loyalist; a made man capable of adhering to a strict code of honor while also committing murder on behalf of the capo di tutti i capi.

The Traitor (co-written by the director with three collaborators) can’t quite square this puzzling circle: perhaps one would have to spend time in the Mafia before being able to make the distinction between being a man of honor (which Buscetta clearly considered himself to be) and being a cold-blooded killer turned informant (which is how virtually everyone else on either side of the law saw him). Viewers are advised not to dwell too much on the question, though the film’s final scene bluntly underscores the conundrum.

Beginning in Palermo, Sicily — the heroin capital of the world, we’re told — the story soon moves to Rio de Janeiro, where Buscetta twice went into exile. His first exile, the result of an arrest warrant for drug trafficking, ended with his extradition to Italy in 1972; after serving eight years in prison, he returned to Brazil in 1980, but was extradited yet again shortly after the disappearance of his sons.

The kidnapping of Benedetto and Antonio Buscetta (neither of whom have ever been found) proved to be Buscetta’s breaking point. Thoroughly disgusted with his former compatriots, he chose to cooperate with Judge Giovanni Falcone (played by Fausto Russo Alesi) in his efforts to break the back of the Cosa Nostra. Much of The Traitor recreates the resulting ‘maxi-trial’ of 1986, which still holds the record for the largest trial of all time with a whopping 475 defendants in the dock.

Bellocchio’s film also touches on the political instability rampant in Italy throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including the trial of former Prime Minister Guilio Andreotti, accused of establishing and maintaining ties between organized crime and the right-wing Christian Democratic Party. There’s even an ever so brief reference to the murder of muckraking journalist Mino Pecorelli, whose news agency, Osservatore Politico, published obtuse and cryptic stories of skullduggery and corruption in Italian politics. (A film about Pecorelli would be fascinating, but in the likely event one never gets made, I recommend Philip Willan’s book Puppetmasters: The Political Use of Terrorism in Italy).

In sum, The Traitor provides both a fascinating history lesson and a completely engaging narrative. Perhaps a bit old-fashioned in comparison to Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite — and I’m by no means complaining about Parasite’s win, which was well deserved – The Traitor arguably deserved a nomination in this year’s Best International Feature category.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...