The Traitor

There are quite a few films by Italian director Marco Bellocchio I haven’t seen; much of his older work remains unavailable for home viewing in the U.S., and several of his more recent titles never screened in Chicago. But I can aver based on the ones I have seen that Bellocchio’s output runs the gamut from great to terrible. His caustic, politically astute satires Fists in the Pocket (1965) and China Is Near (1967) are some of my favorite Italian films of the 1960s, and his Good Morning, Night (2003) and Vincere (2009) are some of the best Italian films of the current century. On the other hand, Devil in the Flesh (1986) is little more than tony soft-core porn and The Conviction (1991), a pseudo-intellectual apologia for rape, is among the more offensive films I know. Yet even the bad Bellocchio films I’ve seen contain passages of bravura technique and at least a few ideas to chew on—they made be infuriating, but they’re never boring.

I like that I never know what I’m going to get with Bellocchio, apart from some exquisite tracking shots and some arguments about the makeup of Italian society. I’m not sure if I can’t anticipate what his moves will do because I don’t have enough of a handle on his filmography or because he’s genuinely unpredictable; in either case, I get to approach each new Bellocchio film I see as something of a mystery, which is a lot more fun than entering a movie with clearly defined expectations. His work—or at least the portion of it I know—reminds me that one’s relationship to cinema should be an adventure, full of unexpected turns but guided by certain convictions (though surely not The Conviction) as to what one wants from sounds and images.

All of this is to say that I went into Bellocchio’s latest feature, The Traitor (which is still playing at the Landmark Renaissance and AMC River East), with my curiosity whet. I’m happy to report that the film not only rewarded this curiosity, but encouraged it as well. Ingeniously structured, The Traitor snakes surprisingly forward and backward in time, and Bellocchio’s visual style, rooted in frequent camera movements, provides a fitting analogue to the narrative form. The film is a docudrama about Tommaso Buscetta, a mafia boss who turned informant in the 1980s and whose testimonies led to the arrests of hundreds of powerful criminals. It’s hardly groundbreaking in its subject matter, though the storytelling keeps you on your toes. As in Vincere, Bellocchio cuts often from one tracking shot to another, suggesting a force external to the action that’s hurtling the characters through time and driving their actions towards large-scale repercussions.

We generally call this force history. Most films that attempt to depict it treat it as a given, hinting at it through a certain reverence granted to significant events, but Bellocchio, avoiding any kind of weighty reverence, renders the force fleet and unpredictable. We sense that the characters are moving toward some destination in time, but we don’t know what (it’s not unlike my relationship to Bellocchio’s work on the whole). How refreshing to think of historical progress as mercurial rather than inevitable—it implies that we’re capable of grasping and even redirecting it.

In the days after I saw The Traitor, I went to screenings of two films that take the opposite approach to presenting history onscreen: Pedro Costa’s latest feature Vitalina Varela (which played at Columbia College’s Film Row Cinema with Costa in attendance) and Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 work Goodbye, Dragon Inn (which played over the weekend in Doc Films’s ongoing Tsai retrospective). Both films contain minimal camera movement, relying instead on static long takes that make one feel, through their duration, the weight of history upon the characters. Aesthetically speaking, these are forward-pushing works, though the content emphasizes looking backwards. Costa’s film asks us to consider the personal history of the title character, a Cape Verdean immigrant playing herself, who’s arrived in Lisbon to bury her husband, who’d come to Portugal for work years earlier. Vitalina Varela feels stuck in the present—the characters’ memories hang over them so heavily that they have trouble moving forward in time—so when anyone reaches a new insight or decision, the progress feels monumental.

Costa’s towering visual compositions certainly add to this effect, ditto his use of darkness to heighten our curiosity about what we actually can see. (The director seems particularly sensitive about this latter technique; he practically began his Q&A by disparaging Columbia College for keeping too many emergency lights on in the screening room during the movie.) Tsai achieves something similar in Goodbye, Dragon Inn through his precise demarcation of what is onscreen and what isn’t. As I’ve written elsewhere, Tsai is the sort of director for whom the cinematic frame becomes something of a prison; his characters seem trapped in the images because we have so little idea of what exists outside of them. Yet there’s much to look at and reflect on in Goodbye, Dragon Inn, namely the history of movies and of moviegoing, the dilapidated Taipei theater where the film takes place, and romantic and sexual rituals that seem to sprout up like weeds in the remnants of all that’s happened in the places under consideration.

I hadn’t seen Goodbye, Dragon Inn in more than a decade, but I was surprised by how much of the movie felt familiar on this revisit. Tsai’s shots have a way of burning themselves into your memory; even if you don’t appreciate them, they stay with you. (Last weekend when Doc Films screened The Wayward Cloud, the one Tsai movie I don’t like, I found myself experiencing a similar sense of recall to what I felt this week.) Conversely I’m eager to see The Traitor again because there are so few specific moments I’ve retained. In the days after watching the film, what’s stayed with me most are sensations related to Bellocchio’s depiction of time. These sensations, particular to cinematic art, reflect the mastery with which Bellocchio orchestrates the various components of his medium. v