In 2015, Roberto Buscetta had been hiding for decades under assumed names and 11 of his closest relatives had been slaughtered by Mafia assassins when two filmmakers tracked him down in Florida, looking to chat.
His father, Tommaso Buscetta, had been a soldier in the Sicilian Mafia, the first high-ranking Mafioso to break the code of silence in the 1980s at a time when the Sicilians took omerta far more seriously than their American brethren. His father’s testimony at trials in Italy and New York had figured in the convictions of more than 400 members of the mob.
Now the filmmakers wanted Roberto Buscetta to appear on camera and talk about his father.
“Killing Tommaso Buscetta’s son would be a perfect trophy,” Roberto said, explaining his reluctance.
But he did it and so did his mother, Cristina, at the urging of the filmmakers, Mark Franchetti and Andrew Meier, whose documentary, “Our Godfather: The Man the Mafia Could Not Kill,” began streaming on iTunes on June 10. It will be featured on Netflix in September.
“Going after the seemingly impossible — finding her and the family and getting them to talk — was always the tantalizing prize,” Franchetti said
Finding the Buscettas was indeed a challenge. It took nearly two years. The immediate family had been living under adopted names in a string of different locations for more than three decades. Roberto’s stepsister Lisa, who also appears in the documentary, says she uttered the Buscetta name for the first time in her life in the film.
Meier said he contacted prosecutors, F.B.I. agents and the Drug Enforcement Administration, which oversaw Buscetta’s security and safe house. The D.E.A. was wary. Several agents who had protected Buscetta had died. Some were uninterested. Two agents who had guarded Buscetta, John Huber and Tony Petrucci, were helpful. Still, they had not been in touch with Cristina for a decade.
Meier finally sent a note in 2015 to an old email address that he was told members of the Buscetta family had used in the past. Weeks passed with no response.
Finally on April 10, 2015, Cristina responded. “I must say,’’ she wrote “that your email woke up my curiosity.”
Cristina was Tommaso Buscetta’s third wife. They met in Rio de Janeiro in 1971. He returned there in the early 1980s after a serving a prison term for drug trafficking. By his own account, he wanted no part of the bloody war being waged in Sicily at the time among factions of the Mafia, or the Cosa Nostra.
Buscetta, who grew up in Palermo, the youngest of 17 children, was the only sibling to join the Mafia. He became an influential figure who commanded respect that went beyond his rank as a soldier. Mob bosses sought his advice. He was intelligent and worldly, having lived in Brazil and Brooklyn, where he worked with the Gambino crime family.
But in 1982, Mafia hit men killed two of his sons, a son-in-law, his closest brother and a nephew in separate incidents in Palermo. The following year, after being arrested in Brazil, he agreed to cooperate with Italian and American law enforcement and signed what became a 3,000-page confession.
“For him, breaking omerta was really the hardest decision of his life because he had this sensation that he broke something that was sacred,” Cristina says in “Our Godfather.”
He testified in Palermo during the “Maxi Trial,” the largest anti-mob prosecution in history, which culminated in 1987 with the conviction of 342 Mafiosi.
Since Italy did not have a witness protection program, American authorities hid him in a safe house in New Jersey and shuttled him back and forth across the Atlantic.
“It has to be understood that during that period Buscetta was the most important, the most wanted and most endangered witness in American criminal history,” Huber, the D.E.A. agent, said in an interview.
In New York, Buscetta testified in 1985 at the “pizza connection case,” brought by Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was the United States attorney in Manhattan at the time. Seventeen people were convicted for their roles in an international drug ring.
“There was no other witness in the case who was able to describe the enterprise, identify the hierarchy and describe the goals of the organization,” said Louis Freeh, the lead prosecutor who went on to become director of the F.B.I.
Ivan S. Fisher, who represented the Mafia boss Salvatore Catalano at the trial, said. Buscetta “just oozed intelligence.”
“He played the courtroom like fiddle,” he said.
Fourteen years later, still in hiding, Buscetta died of cancer at the age of 71. He was buried under an alias in North Miami, Fla. But his story, his place in history as the Mafia’s first high-ranking informer, and the ravages he brought to the mob, and his own family, still resonated years later with Franchetti, a foreign correspondent in Moscow for the Sunday Times of London, and Meier, a journalist and nonfiction author.
Franchetti had been the producer of a 2013 documentary, “The Condemned,” about a remote Russian prison exclusively for murderers.
Now he and Meier wanted to provide a compelling, but straightforward account of Buscetta’s life, stripped of romance and populated with interviews with family members who had not spoken publicly since they disappeared in 1986.
Cristina and her son Roberto agreed to meet the filmmakers in Florida in May 2015. Roberto asked Petrucci, the D.E.A. agent who had once protected the family, to join them. Hours before they were supposed to meet, Cristina changed the meeting spot to the Ritz-Carlton, overlooking the beach in Fort Lauderdale.
“At the first meeting, Mark and Andrew gave us all kinds of assurances,” Roberto said. “When you’ve been in this business for a long time, there are certain words you want to hear. The guys came across as incredibly sincere. They were willing to bargain about everything, including whether to show our faces on camera.”
The filmmakers told Cristina and Roberto that it was difficult to make a film about a dead man with only a handful of photographs available. Might they have any family photographs, home movies, diaries?
Cristina said she had a trunk full of photos, while Roberto said he had lots of video. At a subsequent meeting, he handed them 13 DVDs, including one that showed Buscetta in a Santa Claus hat dishing out Christmas presents to the family.
“That’s when we realized we definitely had a film, a unique and intimate insight into a Mafia don and his family,” Franchetti said.
Still it took time for Cristina and Roberto to agree to go on camera. Not even their neighbors knew their real names. “There is still a risk,” Cristina Buscetta told the filmmakers. “The Mafia does not forget.”
“Security for them and us was the main issue,” Meier said. “Cristina said, ‘This is my last son.’”
The logistics were key. Meetings with family members had to be discreet and at carefully chosen locations. Filming was done at spots where the backgrounds were visually interesting, but nondescript, without identifying landmarks that would reveal the Buscettas’ location.
Still many relatives rebuffed the filmmakers. Others agreed to help but would not appear on camera.
Even Roberto, who in the film describes serving combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan under his assumed name, asked for precautions. He would not allow that name to be used in the film. He asked that his face never appear in full view.
Cristina, however, looked straight into the camera, ready to remember the man she had loved.
“We found her at the right time in her life,” Meier said. “She felt she hadn’t told the story. As she said in the film, ‘It was now or never.’”