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MOVIE REVIEW

In ‘The Traitor,’ breaking the silence in Sicily — and far beyond

Pierfrancesco Favino in "The Traitor."Lia Pasqualino/Sony Pictures Classics

“The Traitor” is a Mafia story that plays like a cross between a character study and a courtroom procedural. This is hardly a bad thing, especially in the hands of Marco Bellocchio, who, 55 years after his 1965 debut, “Fists in the Pocket,” remains a legend of Italian filmmaking. Just so you know what you’re getting, though, “The Traitor” is a coolly epic appraisal of a country’s struggle with its dark side rather than a mobbed-up melodrama. If it’s “Godfather” clichés you want, there’s always “The Godfather.”

Tommaso Buscetta was one of the first Sicilian crime bosses to break the code of omertà and become a government informant, testifying at the mid-1980s Maxi Trial, the largest anti-Mafia prosecution in the country’s history. He thus was simultaneously one of the most revered and most detested men in Italy, neither of which apparently mattered much to him.

Buscetta is played by Pierfrancesco Favino as a weary lion — an apex predator who’s had enough. “The Traitor” opens with a lavish Palermo party in the early 1980s at which all the families are present; it’s the one touch of Coppola and a handy way to identify the players, caught by cinematographer Vladan Radovic in tabloid flash-frame. Buscetta is there on the sly, having fled arrest in Italy for a comfortable life smuggling drugs and cigarettes in Brazil. Upon his return to South America, a clan war breaks out back in Sicily, and Buscetta’s two grown sons are murdered on orders of rival mob chief Toto Riina (Nicola Cali).

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Is that enough to turn the hero turncoat? Not quite, but upon being extradited to Italy, Buscetta agrees to open up to Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), first grudgingly, then willingly laying out the secret hierarchies of Cosa Nostra, “our thing.”

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Pierfrancesco Favino in "The Traitor." Sony Pictures Classics

Those conversations with the judge are among the most striking scenes in “The Traitor,” as Buscetta waxes nostalgic for the old days of honor in the Mafia and Falcone smoothly but firmly insists there was no such thing — that thugs are thugs. Still, while Buscetta will gladly testify to criminal matters, he’s hazier for the moment on the Cosa Nostra’s relationships with politicians, local and national. That will come — but will anyone listen?

The film’s other highlight is the Maxi Trial itself, which Bellocchio stages in accordance with reality as a Fellini-esque carnival where the accused Mafiosi howl in outrage from their prison cages lining the back of the courtroom and witnesses testify from within a giant plexiglass cube. Buscetta’s unruffled descriptions of murders and betrayals is contrasted with the testimony of his hotheaded friend Totuccio Contorno (Luigi Lo Cascio), who’d just as soon get into a shouting match with the prisoners as provide useful information.

The film’s strict focus on Buscetta both strengthens it and leaves threads hanging, including the details of his relationship with third wife Cristina (Maria Fernanda Candido). As did “Good Morning, Night,” Bellocchio’s 2003 film about the kidnapping and murder of former prime minister Aldo Moro, “The Traitor” presumes a familiarity with the specifics of events and national mood that may not be shared by the average American audience. The storytelling sprawls over several decades, a few shocking deaths (one filmed from the inside of a car explosion), and — given Buscetta’s witness-program time in the United States — three continents.

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Yet Bellocchio shows the sure hand of a filmmaking master, and even at nearly 2½ hours, “The Traitor” maintains its grip. At the movie’s core is a reserved sense of awe for what Tommaso Buscetta did and a delight in the uncomprehending fury of the killers he betrayed. The director knows that his hero struck at a primal nerve in the Italian psyche: In a culture obsessed with macho secrecy, he told everything. That not everyone wanted to hear it is their fault, not his.

★★★

THE TRAITOR

Directed by Marco Bellocchio. Written by Bellocchio, Valia Santella, Ludovica Rampoldi, Francesco Piccolo, Francesco La Licata. Starring Pierfrancesco Favino, Fausto Russo Alesi, Maria Fernanda Candido. At Kendall Square. In Italian, with subtitles. 145 minutes. R (violence, sexual content, language, brief graphic nudity).