Actor Pierfrancesco Favino is no stranger to American audiences. In addition to the Italian blockbusters that have made it to our shores, including Gabriele Muccino’s The Last Kiss, Roberto Ando’s The Confessions, and Ferzan Ozpetek’s Saturn in Opposition, he’s had significant parts in numerous American productions. Among them are Ron Howard’s Angels and Demons, Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna and a stint as Christopher Columbus in Night at the Museum. He even gave us a tour of Rome via his Vespa for CBS This Morning during the papal conclave of 2013. In every character that he becomes, Favino brings his signature humility and grace making his characters vulnerable yet strong in their convictions and above all, unforgettable.
His latest film made its American premiere at the 57thNew York Film Festival in October and is Italy’s entry for the Academy Awards. Directed by Marco Bellocchio,Il Traditore (The Traitor) is the true story of mafia informant, Tommaso Buscetta. The role is arguably the most important of Favino’s career. “It’s a story of a man who wants to die in his bed. It’s a tragic journey of a man,” Favino told us while he was presenting the film in New York.
Tommaso Buscetta was born and raised in Palermo. The youngest of 17 children, he was the only member of the family to get involved with organized crime. He quickly moved up in the ranks and went beyond the confines of Sicily to work in Brazil and New York during his dealings with the Gambino crime family. Everything changed in 1982 after two of Buscetta’s sons were murdered. He was overcome by grief and decided to break the code of silence. He did it during the tumultuous 1980s when the violence of the Cosa Nostra crippled Palermo. Referred to as the Maxi Trial, Buscetta’s testimony eventually led to the incarceration of some 400 mafiosi.
Our New York City correspondent Lucia Grillo sat down with Favino while he was there presenting the film at the 57th New York Film Festival. She talked with him about his portrayal of Buscetta and also about his upcoming projects.
What compelled you to take on this role?
Well I really wanted to do it so the first thing I did was try to convince Marco to take me. I was not offered the movie. I really did my best to be in the movie… because of him, because of Marco Bellocchio and because of the character and the meeting between these two big figures, Buscetta and Bellocchio. I was very curious to see how he would have handled that kind of man and mafia movie, which is something he’s never done. So I knew it would have been a great opportunity for me as an actor.
He did it in a very unique way. Watching the film, I was thinking of people who are not familiar with the story- would they realize the impact of Buscetta and this entire trial and the mafia rite because it doesn’t start with the violence. So for those of us who do know the story, we can follow but then it’s absolutely clear what the impact was on the people.
Well in the end, of course, there are different levels and one is the historical level and then there’s the personal level and I think that’s what people can empathize with. In the end, it’s a story of a man who wants to die in his bed and wants to survive, which is archetypical. It’s a tragic journey of a man. Then of course, there are all of the ingredients of the mafia movie but I really like the way Marco portrayed it because those people are not glamourous as we’re used to seeing. There’s nothing cool about them. Gunshots are real gunshots. There’s nothing that is action movie-driven. It’s more of a very unique way of looking at the inner life of this man and I think this has something that everybody in the world can watch and understand.
It’s kind of like here where we have mainly African American youth when they get to the age of 30, it’s a celebration because there’s so much violence in inner cities still that if they reach age 30, it’s the exact same thing.
Well, I wasn’t born in Sicily in the 20s, so I can’t really know what it was like and why he decided to embrace mafia because he doesn’t come from a mafia family, so he wanted to build to belong to the mafia but violence is everywhere. I don’t know what you think about it. Violence is everywhere. We’re surrounded by violence and aggressiveness and so it is something that we can recognize and we all want to be part of something but at the same time, we all want to be oneand this is another aspect of this story. He wants to be recognized for what he is and not for what he belongs to. Then he does not accept things that are changing around him and he’s loyal to what he believed in. There’s a subtle anguish that he always feels and I think that makes him a compelling character when you watch the movie.
Watch Lucia Grillo's interview with Pierfrancesco Favino..
It's interesting too because these men are not necessarily sociopaths where they love. And he is portrayed as someone who didn’t really care about his children but there’s that moment, that scene after his children are killed, his adult male children, and he’s lamenting. For a moment, I was thinking I can’t feel for him. I wanted to feel for him but I couldn’t and I was expecting something lofty to come from him. Can you talk a little bit about that scene?
Well as I was telling you, there are different aspects. One is the fact that you belong to mafia. The other is that you have children and I’m a father, too, so when I imagine for a second that that might happen to me, I suffer over that. It’s something that I can empathize with or sympathize with. But then at the same time, he’s guilty and he will always be guilty. So as you were saying, you embrace his feelings but you don’t really get to be with him until the end, which is what we wanted to do. In my research, I understood that he was a family man. You know when you talk about abandoning children, think about all the people that go abroad to work and leave their children and then they see them after four or five years especially if you belong to that kind of mafia. It wouldn’t have been possible in his mind that his best friend would have betrayed him. So that was a kind of revolution because mafia promised the people belonging to their criminal organization that nothing would have harmed their children or their families. So that was like the last evidence of the fact that things were changing. So when that happened, it made him crazy. It's enough to listen to the actual recordings of him crying over this. He did it truly so we didn’t really invent that moment. He was a very sentimental man believe it or not.
I believe it. I’ve known people who were apparently as you said.
You’re Italian, you’re origins are Italian. You know how important family is for us. You understand the investment we make in that kind of idea of a tribal group and for us it’s something that is very touching. And then for anybody who has children, even coming from other cultures, will understand what it means for a father to lose his children especially if he’s guilty of having abandoned them or left them behind.
Did you feel a responsibility to the legacy of Buscetta?
I felt a responsibility for history. I felt a responsibility for the legacy of Falcone more than the legacy of Buscetta to be honest. I wanted to speak to the family but it wasn’t possible and of course whenever you portray somebody that’s really existed, the first audience you’re addressing are the people who might have been keen or part of his family. But then in the end, this man also became a public figure. So when you deal with a public figure, you are free to imagine or make up what his life might have been. I don’t think there’s anything disrespectful (in the film) in terms of talking about his life and his family. It’s all been confirmed by a documentary that you can find on Netflix now where his children and his wife decided to appear and talk about him. So if you look at the documentary, if you compare it with the movie, there is nothing that is different in the story of this man. The idea of his life is not far at all from what they wanted and what they've said in the documentary. So we managed to be loyal to his legacy I think.
And you have a couple of movies coming out..
Yes, there’s a movie I made last year that’s going to come out in Italy in January that’s about Bettino Craxi, an Italian politician in the 80s and then a movie I made with Gabriele Muccino. It’s the fourth movie we made together and that’s going to come in February. And now, I’m shooting a movie that I’m coproducing and that’s the third movie of a young director. His name is Claudio Noce and I’m playing in it as well.
And that’s in Calabria?
That’s in Calabria, your region of origin! Yes, and as soon as I get back, I’m going there to continue shooting.
Are you going to be speaking in Calabrese dialect?
A little bit, yes!