Julia Garner is superb in “The Assistant,” opening Feb. 7 at the Embarcadero and Kabuki in San Francisco. (Courtesy Ty Johnson/Bleecker Street)

Codes of silence abound in ‘Assistant,’ ‘Traitor’

Office- and Mafia-set films have commonalities

Set not long before Me Too, “The Assistant” follows, over the course of a day, a low-rung subordinate at a film production company run by a mogul who easily could be Harvey Weinstein. While some may wish writer-director Kitty Green had presented her headline-based material with more oomph and less subtlety, her remarkably observant, quietly gripping picture shows the workplace dynamics that have allowed abusive bosses like Weinstein to thrive.

Green’s underling-condition drama and office horror thriller features a recent grad named Jane (Julia Garner), who has producer aspirations. More isolated and alone than the “Bombshell” women, Jane has worked for the above-mentioned, never-named mogul at his Manhattan headquarters for a few weeks.

We watch Jane from morning till night as she performs routine tasks such as making coffee and booking the boss’ flights.

We never see the mogul, but we hear his voice berating Jane on the phone and we read nasty e-mails he sends, never mind she’s done nothing wrong. As Jane types up apologies for her perceived blunders, two condescending male officemates (John Orsini, Noah Robbins) stand over her and dictate the proper verbiage.

Green doesn’t show details of what the mogul does to women. But the clues she drops — an earring, unsavory stains on the couch — allow even those unfamiliar with the revelations of 2017 to get the picture.

The mogul’s employees know what’s happening but remain mum. Without preaching, Green makes clear that they’re protecting and enabling their boss.

Jane’s silence breaks at the arrival of a new hire, a young woman (Kristine Froseth) from Idaho. The mogul visits her at the luxury hotel where he’s booked her a room.

Worried, Jane speaks to the human-resources chief (Matthew MacFadyen). He responds by questioning her judgment and stability. Filing a complaint against the boss would kill her career, he adds.

Dramatic arc and wallop don’t dominate Green’s tonal palette. Jane, meanwhile, provides little overt emotional voltage.

But in its own subtle way, the movie is harrowing.

Working realistically and with an eagle eye, Green, previously a documentarian, delivers 87 absorbing minutes of workplace pathology as she illustrates how rottenness at the top can infect subordinates and intimidataion and silence make behavior like Weinstein’s possible.

The human-resources executive’s crushing of Jane’s defiance is a superb bit of psychodrama.

Green’s detailed storytelling, which has been likened to that of Chantal Akerman in the early feminist classic “Jeanne Dielman,” engrosses us in Jane’s unglamorous world: ringing phones, paper jams, leftover doughnuts, male banter. Power-related concerns affect even the most mundane decisions: Should Jane exit the elevator before or after the male higher-up standing toweringly near her?

Such dilemmas, along with everyday frustrations, register expressively on Jane’s face. Garner, the costar of “Ozark” and the big-screen Lily Tomlin indie “Grandma,” solidly anchors the film and brings to mesmerizing life a character who might have come across as drearily passive.

Yet this movie’s audiences may take solace in knowing that a monumental shakeup soon will occur in the world Jane occupies. “The Assistant” is an absorbing reminder of the situations that led to that.


The Assistant

Three stars

Starring: Julia Garner, Matthew MacFadyen, John Orsini, Noah Robbins

Written and directed by: Kitty Green

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes

Fausto Russo Alesi, left, and Pierfrancesco Favino star in “The Traitor.” (Courtesy Lia Pasqualino/Sony Pictures Classics)

While poles apart, tonally, from Green, Italy’s Marco Bellocchio similarly depicts nefarious operators and their codes of silence in a drama opening Friday at the Embarcadero. Uneven but entertaining, “The Traitor” centers on the Cosa Nostra informant whose testimony led to Italy’s “trial of the century” and substantially weakened the Sicilian Mafia.

Bellocchio, whose career dates back to the 1960s, is known for socially and politically themed dramas. “Vincere,” released here a decade ago, was an operatically outrageous, excitingly unconventional portrayal of Benito Mussolini’s secret first wife and gargantuan ego.

The more traditional “The Traitor” is an old-fashioned gangster picture, complete with christenings and assassinations (there’a body tally onscreen) and a courtroom drama containing hilariously surreal fact-based dramatics.

The movie opens in the early 1980s, when rival Sicilian crime families have been warring over heroin trafficking. Protagonist Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), who describes himself as an ordinary Cosa Nostra soldier, has profited from the drug trade but is turned off by the ruthless tactics, including kiliing women and children, employed by the Corleone family’s Toto Riina (Nicola Calì).

Buscetta flees to Brazil with his third wife, Cristina (Maria Fernanda Candido), but finds that one cannot abandon ship where the Mafia is concerned. Back in Sicily, members of Buscetta’s family are murdered.

Soon, Brazil extradites Buscetta to Italy. There, he does the unthinkable: He informs on the Cosa Nostra. He views himself not as a snitch but as a “man of honor” trying to restore the old values to the organization, he tells anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi).

Buscetta’s testimony, along with that of other talkers, leads to Italy’s “maxi” trial, which yields 360 convictions. Defendants include money-laundering “cashier” Pippo Calo (Fabrizio Ferracane).

Bellocchio follows Buscetta before, during and after the trial, in Palermo, Rome, Brazil and the United States, where he’s joined the Witness Protection Program.

Lots goes on in the film, which sometimes feels stuffed with characters and scenarios at the expense of pulse and verve. Perhaps Bellocchio and his three cowriters amount to too many cooks stirring the ragu.

At 145 minutes, “The Traitor” seems longer than Martin Scorsese’s 3.5-hour “The Irishman.”

Favino, a popular actor in Italy, intriguingly portrays Buscetta as a complexity of charisma, conscience and a Mafia-ingrained capacity for revenge and violence. But Bellocchio doesn’t adequately explore what impels him to do something as shockingly and dangerously forbidden as ratting on the Mafia. The director also doesn’t illustrate the potentially fascinating friendship that Buscetta says he formed with Judge Falcone.

Yet even at his weakest, Bellocchio isn’t dull or shallow. “The Traitor” is a satisfying, substantive gangster flick and an immensely entertaining portrait of courtroom justice Sicilian style.

In a superb action passage, Buscetta’s wife is dangled from a helicopter while Buscetta is forced to watch the scene from a nearby chopper, a sight presumably designed to get him to squeal.

Best is Bellocchio’s presentation of the trial; it’s a comically bizarre circus in which Mafia defendants, locked in cells with prison bars, hurl insults at witnesses, who appear in protective enclosures, as a judge tries to maintain decorum.


The Traitor

Three stars

Starring: Pierfrancesco Favino, Maria Fernanda Candido, Fausto Russo Alesi, Nicola Cali

Written by: Marco Bellocchio, Ludovica Rampoldi, Valia Santela, Francesco Piccolo

Directed by: Marco Bellocchio

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes

Movies and TV

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