Originally produced for Italian TV, but released theatrically, Bernardo Bertolucci's THE SPIDER'S STRATAGEM is a mysterious, moody,and richly textured adaptation of Jose Luis Borges's short story,"Theme of the Traitor and the Hero," with the story transposed from Ireland to Italy, and
continuing the themes of fascism, conformity, and identity from Bertolucci's previous film THE CONFORMIST (1971).
A train pulls into the station in the small town of Tara, Italy,and a man named Athos Magnani Jr. (Giulio Brogi) gets off. In the town square, he sees a statue of his father, who is memorializd as a hero who was killed by fascists in 1936. Athos goes to visit a woman named Draifa (Alida Valli),
who says she was his father's mistress and that she wants him to find out who killed him over 30 years ago. Athos says he's not interested and that he has to go home the next day. He returns to his hotel, where he gets locked in a room and attacked by a stranger the next morning.
Athos decides to do some investigating, but continually has doors and windows slammed in his face. After being dragged out of town, a man named Gaibazzi (Pippo Campanini) drives by and picks him up. He tells Athos that he was a member of a group of rebels led by Athos Sr., and that they had
planned to assassinate Mussolini during a performanace of Rigoletto at the local opera, but someone tipped off the fascists and they found the bomb, causing Mussolini to cancel his visit. Athos visits some more of his father's old comrades and asks them about his murder. They all say what a brave
and extraordinary man he was, but don't know who killed him.
Athos returns to his hotel and prepares to leave, but during a performance of Rigoletto, which is being piped over the town's loudspeakers, he overhears some men whose voices are inadvertently picked up by a microphone as they discuss how Athos Sr. really died. Eventually, Gaibazzi and his
comrades admit to Athos that his father was actually the traitor who informed the authorities about the bomb plot and that he himself had concocted an elaborate plot in which he would be killed by his own men in order to make it look like he was a victim of the fascists.
On his way out of town, Athos gives a speech in the town square in which he praises his father as a hero, thus continuing the charade. He then goes to the station and waits for the train, which is increasingly delayed, while looking at the overflowing weeds which have completely covered the
Like the thick weeds which hide the railroad tracks, THE SPIDER'S STRATAGEM is a simple detective story covered by a dense web of enigmatic and impenetrable meanings. There is an eerie, nightmarish quality to the whole town and its citizens, in which time seems to have stood still, creating an
unnerving sense of dislocation and paranoia. Bertolucci is less interested in the specific politics of the situation than the existential abyss into which Athos Jr. finds himself falling as he's inexorably drawn into a futile attempt to delve into the past and decipher the truth. The notion of a
child who is virtually identical to his parent is emphasized by having the same actor portray both father (in flashbacks) and son, which is particularly effective in a scene where Athos Jr. is running from a mob, crosscut with Athos Sr. running from his comrades in the same spot 30 years earlier.
Despite his apparent lack of interest in the father he never knew, but whom he looks exactly like, Athos Jr. gradually comes to the realization that his cowardice and lack of commitment is very much like his father's.
Aesthetically, the film finds Bertolucci in a transitory mode, caught between his early Godard-influenced abstraction and his later style of lush, operatic camera movements and theatrical use of color and music, utilizing not only the Rigoletto leitmotif, but also making explicit references to
Macbeth and Julius Caesar. The dark cinematography by Vittorio Storaro and Franco Di Giacomo brilliantly conveys an ominous atmosphere of the hidden and the unknown, and the entire visual design of the film was undoubtedly a major influence on the look of THE GODFATHER trilogy, while the concept
of a murder taking place during an opera was specifically used in THE GODFATHER, PART III (1990). (Violence.)
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- Rating: NR
- Review: Originally produced for Italian TV, but released theatrically, Bernardo Bertolucci's THE SPIDER'S STRATAGEM is a mysterious, moody,and richly textured adaptation of Jose Luis Borges's short story,"Theme of the Traitor and the Hero," with the story transpos… (more)