TORONTO — The original gangster-turncoat, Sicilian-born mob boss Tommaso Buscetta was the star witness in the biggest anti-Mafia trials in both Italy and the U.S. His detailed testimony about the Mafia’s practices and hierarchical structure led to the convictions of hundreds of Mafiosi over several years, beginning in the mid 1980s. When he died of cancer at age 71, Buscetta was still the mob’s most wanted man and living at an undisclosed location under the American witness protection program.
“Our Godfather,” which world-premiered at Hot Docs in Toronto, explores one of the most pivotal stories in modern criminal history through Buscetta’s own voice, never-before-seen archival material, dramatic courtroom footage, and compelling interviews with Buscetta’s widow and surviving children, who break their silence for the first time.
Mark Franchetti (“Bolshoi Babylon,” Hot Docs 2015) and Andrew Meier (author of the 2008 book “The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service”) became friends while they were both Moscow correspondents “from late Yeltsin to early Putin,” as Meier says. Although neither had ever worked on anything about the Mafia, they had a hunch that Buscetta’s widow had a potentially fascinating side of the story to tell—if she could be found. The co-directors of “Our Godfather” spoke to Variety about Buscetta’s legacy in popular culture, the lasting impact of his testimony on his family, and the aura of danger that still lingers.
Buscetta died of cancer almost 20 years ago—was there some new revelation or some other reason that made you decide to revisit his story?
Franchetti: Around four years ago, I realized that Buscetta still had a widow alive somewhere, who has never spoken publicly before, and that his family had never spoken publicly before. There is an important American chapter in his story—he had given evidence in America, he had been in witness protection. It was not just an Italian story.
How difficult or easy was it to find Buscetta’s widow in this era of social media and researching on the Internet?
Meier: We encountered a lot of red herrings and false leads. Through the American archives, we got thousands of pages of Buscetta’s [witness] testimony in the “pizza connection” trial [the longest federal jury trial in a criminal action in U.S. history] prosecuted by lead investigator Louis J. Freeh, Rudy Giuliani, and others. In that testimony there were clues to federal agents who had testified and had since retired. So it was a real manhunt.
Franchetti: If you know a person’s name, you can find them very quickly. But if you don’t, it’s impossible. After we met with one particular DEA agent who had protected the family for years – and once he established we were who we said we were, and understood we wanted to reach out to her with our film idea – we were told the surname the family has been given by the U.S. government when they entered the witness protection program. We wrote her an email asking her if she was her father’s daughter, because her father was a well know person in Brazil. She didn’t respond for three weeks. We thought we’d blown it, and then she replied that she was intrigued.
Buscetta has a powerful onscreen presence, but his widow emerges as the heart of the film. She keeps the viewer grounded and interested in the narrative. When you met her, what did you expect, and how did your approach to the film progress once you got the thumbs-up?
Meier: After our first meeting, Mark and I walked away feeling euphoric. I mean—she’s alive, she’s incredibly intelligent, she’s an absolute survivor. She is strong, she is headstrong, she had lived so many lives. She speaks many languages, she’s lived all over the world, she’s lived decades on the run. We were thinking, maybe this film is equally about her.
Franchetti: When we set out, we only wanted people who had first-hand knowledge of him. Except for one person, everyone in the film had never spoke on camera about him. But when you put his name on Google, there are 10 photos of him, and in terms of footage where you actually see his face? Less than a minute.
Meier: It’s important to note here that in Italy, Buscetta is still a well-known name, whereas in America, less so. There were very few images of him on the Internet, even in this day and age, let alone of his family.
Franchetti: How do you make a doc about this guy when you can’t find any photographs or film? Buscetta’s widow told us they moved 20 times and lost a lot of stuff. At our second meeting with her and their son, Roberto, who is in the film, they handed us 13 DVDs of home videos. This was one of the most exciting moments: that evening we sat with our laptops, putting in these DVD, and the first one we looked at—there’s Buscetta dressed as Father Christmas giving out presents. Without that footage and other photographs, we wouldn’t have the film.
In popular culture, being in witness protection – or the prospect of going into it – is now a trope. By the time you leave the “bad guys” and dig into the family life in witness protection, it’s almost the film’s third act and it doesn’t feel safer, it feels like the stakes are even higher. What informed your decisions in shaping the film’s dramatic arc?
Franchetti: Well, you’ve got this extraordinary story about a man who makes two decisions in his life: the first, to join the Mafia when he’s a young man; and the second, to turn against it after he’s been in the Mafia for 40 years. And we wanted people to feel the impact and trail of death, destruction, and family problems that these decisions left behind him. At the end of the day, the price was paid by his family. To this day, 30 years after the case and many years after his father died, his son is still too scared to go on camera.
Meier. There have been many films and docs about the Mafia, but this is the first guy, the first high ranking guy, the first cosa nostra boss insider to turn. There have been thousands since—I mean, the moment someone from the Mafia gets arrested now, people do deals, give evidence. The context is important. At the time of the trial in Italy you still had leading politicians who said that the Mafia was a myth.
The film presents many reasons why Buscetta decided to turn. This was a complex and unprecedented situation, and I expect you’ve encountered that kind of thing in your journalism work—but was there anything that surprised you in your process?
Franchetti: We were both struck by how raw this still is. We met with many other members of the family who would not go on camera. There are still a lot of untold stories. Talking to the authorities went against his DNA. He joined the Mafia in the 1950s, when it was more of a cottage industry, not as bloodthirsty. One of his reasons for cooperating was that it had changed. The more personal reason – and his family might dispute this – was that it was personal revenge, especially after two of his sons were murdered.
At a time when news cycles move so quickly, it’s interesting to step back into a time when a major news story would play out over a very long time. Did you think much about that shift when you were working with archival material?
Franchetti: Archive used to be the death of documentary, but so many films are using it in exciting ways. We use more than 30 minutes of archive in the film, from five different countries, many different sources. We had the luxury of time and looked at and listened to everything ourselves.
Meier: We would have these day-long marathons debating things like, how do we move the family up to the front? We have this incredibly powerful strong woman and the kids’ story up against the greatest hits of the Mafia. Because essentially Buscetta’s story embodies the life and rise and death of Cosa Nostra.