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Cannes 2019: The Traitor, Oh Mercy

It could almost be called a day of cops and robbers in the Cannes competition, if you want to look at mafia killers and heroin traffickers as the robbers. In terms of scoring points artistically, the robbers made out like bandits today.

Stories based on actual history don’t get much bigger or wilder than the one Italian director Marco Bellocchio (“Vincere”) tackles in his latest competition entry. “The Traitor” covers the extended period of time over which high-level mafia operative Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfranceso Favino, in a marvelous performance) functioned as a government informer, giving volumes of testimony on the inner workings of “Cosa Nostra” that led to the unprecedented seven-year anti-mafia trial that took place in Palermo, Sicily, between 1986 and 1992. This is Bellocchio’s sixth time competing for the Palme d’Or, and if there’s any justice, the film deserves a major prize. 

There are many ways to unfold a story of this scope, but Bellocchio has chosen to eschew the dull methods of period drama to shape “The Traitor” as a big, brash operatic extravaganza. There are eerie macabre dream sequences, flashbacks, and memories, and an ironic use of soundtrack music as outsized punctuation.  

He succeeds in effectively conveying the larger than life, and even larger than death, meaning of the ancient code of silence being broken on the mafia’s ancient blood brotherhood, as it is taken apart one piece at a time. His Tomasso Buscetta is a stocky, repellent thug, and yet a charismatic macho who holds the screen with unfailing magnetism and a curiously admirable air of integrity on his own terms.

The film begins with a large party at Buscetta’s Sicilian villa, celebrating a truce between rival mafia families. There are flaming torches and tuxedos, champagne, dance music and commemorative photo ops. It’s colorful, blaring and crass. Bellocchio leads straight into a rapid-fire depiction of subsequent mob hits, like something ripped from the headlines. Each one is numbered on the screen; each one picking off a member of Buscetta’s family or network.

Every friend and associate is a potential assassin. Buscetta goes into lavishly styled hiding in Brazil under an assumed name, with his third wife and latest crop of kids. The jig is up when his two adult sons, who had remained in Sicily, are murdered. He is soon arrested and extradited to Italy. With the beginning of his cooperation with judge Giovani Falconi (Fausto Russo Alesi), with whom he painfully achieves a special understanding, this story moves into its most sprawling and critical phase, encompassing the years-long trial and Buscetta’s later life in the witness protection program in the U.S. 

The trial is the centerpiece of this 145 minute-long film, and the dramatization of portions of its many session are given extended screen time, with testimony presumably based on actual transcripts. Anyone who lacks a detailed knowledge of Italian politics, contemporary history, and the mafia’s cast of characters will soon be overcome by confusion despite the screen texts and labels. And yet, Bellocchio makes it absolutely gripping and thoroughly character driven.

A zoo-like atmosphere reigns. This courtroom is like no other: ringed by a semi-circle of barred alcoves that look out into the main room, and hold the many defendants of organized crime like so many caged animals. The faces and body language tell their own stories. The scene goes mad day after day. Men scream insults, cry, lie, and reveal the undiminished urge for revenge in their eyes. In the breadth and depth of this landmark work in Bellocchio’s career, the passion of blood lust is fully on display.

With his competition entry “Oh Mercy,” a character-driven policier, French director Arnaud Desplechin (“Ismael’s Ghost,”) returns to his hometown of Robaix, a grimly depressed industrial city in the north of France, not far from Lille. Desplechin’s contentious family drama “A Christmas Tale,” was also set in this region at holiday time. In “Oh Mercy,” it’s Christmas night, but the Robaix police station is reaping its usual share of crimes, complaints, and crazies. This is a city where the terminally deprived, the unemployed, and immigrants of every nation mix uneasily. 

Police captain Daoud (Roschdy Zem) maintains traces of a bemused expression as the stout, stubble-faced man before him urgently spins his story. It seems that two men attempted to steal his car. In the process, they burned his neck and damaged the car. “What did they look like,” inquires Daoud? They were Arabs; one wore a turban; they brandished a blowtorch; they shouted “Allah Akbar” as they ran away into the night. 

With each retelling, the false story becomes more contradictory and more embroidered with anti-immigrant sentiment. Daoud breaks it all down with analytic precision until the little man hangs his head at the thwarting of his attempted insurance scam.

With this scene, Desplechin establishes the street cred and modus operandi of the preternaturally calm Algerian-born captain, one of the film’s two central police characters. Daoud’s direct opposite is greenhorn Louis (Antoine Reinartz), an earnest Catholic who prays fervently at night, and has yet to develop a policeman’s sixth sense. Cases including a runaway teenager, the rape of a schoolgirl in a subway tunnel, and a suspected arson, are just the warm-up for this film’s core story.

In an interview in the film’s press book, Desplechin states that TV cop shows from years in the past stuck in his mind as inspiration. He makes references to Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Pierre Melville. For all that, “Oh Mercy” is more second-rate TV than Hitchcock knock-off. The faded and gritty locale of Robaix casts its own spell, but the investigation into the film’s big case, the murder of a woman in her eighties, leads to an increasingly elaborate focus on procedural minutiae.

Two young women living next door to the murder victim are brought into custody for questioning. Belligerent, pretty Claude (Lea Seydoux), a single mother, and her girlfriend, scruffy Marie (Sara Forestier) are totally uncooperative, leading to the employment of methods that include good cop/bad cop ensemble interrogation. The sessions become more of an exercise in acting for the three key stars, as the expected triggers are deployed, and the breakdowns, contradictions and betrayals come right on schedule. Desplechin’s script has a lifeless feeling once the novelty of the locations wears off and the schematic scope of each characterization becomes apparent. 

Barbara Scharres

Barbara Scharres is the former Director of Programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, a public program of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  

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