History and Time as a Fork in the Square

Bernardo Bertolucci's The Spider's Stratagem

by Donato Totaro Volume 2, Issue 2 / March 1998 10 minutes (2429 words)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem is a wonderfully audacious treatment of the paradoxes of history, truth, and temporality. It is an art film that arrives at the same conclusion as John Ford’s reflexive western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), where, at the end, a modern newspaper editor turns to Ranse (Jimmy Stewart) and says, “This is the West sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The contemporary set film deals with a man in his early thirties, Athos Magnani, who upon receiving a letter from his dead father’s ex-mistress, Draifa, returns to his father’s hometown of Tara to delve into the mystery of a father he never knew. His father, also named Athos Magnani, died before Athos Jr. was born and was a revered anti-fascist dramatically murdered by fascists during an opera performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1936. The opening scene has Athos arriving at the desolate Tara train station. In the subsequent scene he arrives into an equally sparse Tara, a town seemingly unaffected by the passage of time. As Athos walks through the empty town streets and De Chirico-esque squares he comes to fully realize the extent of his father’s legendary status. His father’s death, commemorated by street names, marble plaques, and statues, seems to have mortified the town into a frozen patch of time. Roger Ebert notes a shot that will have important thematic ramifications later in the film:

Bertolucci lines up the deep focus shot so that it begins with the son completely blocking out the statue. Then, as he walks through the square, the statue completely obscures the son.

Athos meets with his father’s mistress and his three closest friends, now elderly men in their sixties, Costa, Gaibazzi and Rasori. Athos asks why there are no young people in the town (we only see two), though this is not unusual for a small Italian town and perhaps reflects the schism between Athos (urban-raised) and rural life. Everyone notes the twin-like resemblance between father and son (and, with reason, they are played by the same actor). Through these meetings, some of which trigger flashbacks, Athos discovers, little by little, the truth behind the legend. We learn that Mussolini was to inaugurate Tara’s opera house during a performance of Rigoletto. With this knowledge, his father and three friends plan a dramatic assassination of Mussolini during the performance (shades of the Abraham Lincoln assassination). However, the plan never transpired because Athos Sr., for reasons that are never explained, revealed the plot to the local police. Once exposed, Athos Sr. knew that he had to die for his act of treason. Though we can not be sure that even this story is true, the three men tell Athos that his father devised a death in which he would become a martyred hero to the anti-fascist cause. The three friends would murder Athos Sr. during a performance of Rigoletto and leak that it was the fascists who assassinated the anti-fascist resistance hero Athos Magnani.

Whether Athos’ plan was an effort to redeem himself, or a less noble attempt to secure his place in history is, again, uncertain. Perhaps the three friends and the town of Tara have conspired to guard their own murderous secret? Reality is veiled in a web of deceit and mystery, but what is certain is that myth has replaced truth and created history. In the penultimate scene, Athos Jr. addresses the local people at a town square event commemorating his father’s death. Will he reveal the truth? The camera stays on his face in close-up and Athos looks straight into the camera. Athos speaks in vague, elliptical terms. Earlier scenes from the film are intercut into his speech. For reasons again not made clear, Athos decides to cast truth aside for the curative powers of myth. Perhaps he was overwhelmed by the swoon of history, or has just lost the Oedipal battle; whatever the reason, the legend lives on. In the film’s extraordinary final scene (dealt with in detail later), Athos attempts to leave Tara but finds himself trapped in the titular web of history, myth, time and fatherhood.

My deeper analysis will begin with the film’s richly textured title and linked use of names. Most film titles are an afterthought or, at best, an obviously connected demarcation of plot or subject matter. This is not the case with The Spider’s Stratagem. The town’s name, Tara, is named after the river Taro that runs near Sabbioneta, where the film was shot. Sabbioneta is the hometown of Guiseppe Verdi, whose Rigoletto plays a large role in the film. Tara also forms the first four letters of a notable spider, the Tarantula (Tarantola in Italian), which reflects the film’s theme of history and time as an encircling web. Tara is also the name of the plantation in Gone With the Wind, which Bertolucci explains in the following manner: “Tara is the cinema, Tara is Gone With the Wind ( Sight & Sound , 1/5, 1992, 16). By including a reference to one of filmdom’s all-time popular classics, Bertolucci is reiterating his long-term disdain for being pigeonholed as an arthouse director. The Spider’s Stratagem is the film that marks his break from the notable influence of Jean-Luc Godard, which had been felt since his first film in 1962 The Grim Reaper . The centrality of this separation is with Godard’s immersion in radical films that purposely alienated spectators. Since this point on, Bertolucci had always claimed the importance of connecting with as large an audience as possible, without sacrificing artistic and personal integrity. In fact, The Spider’s Stratagem was one of the first films produced specifically for Italian television (RAI) and first aired on Sunday, October 25, 1970 and repeated on the following Friday (a rare repeat screening). It was only released theatrically in 1972.

Three central characters have names with interesting reverberations. Athos Magnani (son and father) is an unusual blend of a Greek first name and an Italian surname. A possible explanation for this national mix is to read it as an homage on Bertolucci’s part to the painter Giorgio Di Chirico, who was born in Greece of Italian parents and whose “metaphysical” style painting informs much of the film’s set design (the empty streets, menacing squares, etc.). To complete the film’s relationship to painting, another important source for the film’s visual style is the Belgian painter René Magritte. Bertolucci showed Magritte’s paintings to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (whose first color film this was), specifically Empire of Light , to convey the lighting and color balance he wanted for the film. Anyone familiar with Magritte’s work will recognize the compelling blend of day and night light (blue/yellow) in the film’s exterior scenes. Athos Sr.‘s mistress, Draifa, tells Athos Jr. that she was named after Dreyfus. It isn’t mentioned in the body of the film, but Dreyfus was the famous French Jewish banker who was wrongly accused of treason at the turn of the century by a French military tribunal.

The theatre and theatricality informs The Spider’s Stratagem in deviously clever ways. On the most obvious level is the narrative importance of Verdi’s Rigoletto and the borrowings from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Julius Cesaer used by Athos Sr. to embellish his mythic death (and to be complete, the part about the black-dressed motorcyclist comes from Jean Cocteau’s Orphée ). Theatricality works its way into the film’s mise-en-scène in the mannered acting style of the inconsequential towns people, their behavior, and they way they are formally positioned within the frame. They often appear sitting under archways or in the middle of desolate squares. The town-people-as- theatre-pieces become more apparent as the film progresses. As history appears to repeat itself with an encore of Rigoletto the film parodies the adage, “all the world’s a stage.” Speakers are placed throughout the square playing the Rigoletto. A cart full of old ladies is parked outside the theatre, with the women reciting the details of the murder to Athos Jr. Men are seen perched on top of chairs with their ears to the speakers. During the commemoration scene people stand widely spaced apart in the square holding open umbrellas during a clear day. Another less obvious element of theatricality is in the shots that are staged to emulate René Magritte paintings (especially Empire of Light).

It is interesting to compare the film to the Borges short story on which it is based, “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero.” The title suggests two men, but in both the film and the story it ends up that the traitor and the hero is the same person. This informs the film at another layer as well, because by the end of the film two people, the father/the past and the son/the present, arguably fuse into one (also suggested visually by the shot described in the above Roger Ebert quote). In the story the setting is Ireland 1824 and the narrator Ryan, is the great-grandson of the assassinated titular figure, Fergus Kilpatrick (the Athos Magnani character). All the main plot points are identical: the treasonous act, the dramatic death in a theatre, the quoting from Shakespeare, the heroic martyrdom of the traitor, etc. What changes is that in the story it is Kilpatrick’s friend James Alexander Nolan that discovers the hero’s betrayal and proposes to exploit his death for the benefit of the cause. Whereas in the film it is the traitor himself, Athos Magnani, who plots his own heroic martyrdom. Another major difference is that the short story does not use form and content to blur the boundaries between past and present as in the film.

The final scene takes us back to the opening scene, the train station (this circularity no doubt being intentional). It is important to accurately describe the scene’s opening shot. Athos arrives at the station in medium shot standing in-between two sets of train tracks. He turns away from the camera and walks between the tracks to the platform. The train tracks are visible and clear of any foliage. This is a very important detail to remember for a reading of the film’s final long takes. The camera pans left with Athos as he places his suitcase on the platform and sits to wait for the next train to Parma (which, we hear through a voice-over, is delayed). This opening shot clearly establishes the space of the final tracking shot(s). Athos looks off frame right, which cues a cut to another shot of the same space established in the opening shot, only now the grass around the tracks is markedly greener and fresher. This is either a lapse in continuity (highly unlikely) or an unusual slippage in time back to 1936 when both Tara and Athos Magnani Sr were still “alive”. The shot begins on his suitcase, then begins to “track” (cinematic pun no doubt intended by Bertolucci) slowly to the right revealing Athos seated on the edge of the platform. In a continuous motion it dollies past him, tilts down to the train tracks, at which point we see his feet walking along the platform ahead of the camera’s range. The dolly continues and stops at Athos, crouched down running his hands through some foliage nestled around the tracks. The camera tilts up slightly as Athos looks offscreen. Cut to his point of view of a Tara in the distance, where, as in the earlier shot to the tracks in the distance, the vegetation appears fresh and green. Then it cuts back to the dolly shot along the tracks, already in motion. The further right the camera tracks, the heavier the foliage, as if magically growing before our eyes, until the stale, brownish weeds and roots fill the frame completely. The camera stops and the image fades to black.

These two long takes (43 & 36 seconds) do not represent “real time.” The duration of each shot is immeasurable. If we take the trajectory literally as going from clean tracks to grassy tracks, then the temporal leap has been forward. Trains have not passed through the station in years, though they once did. My interpretation, based on the film’s events, would place the temporal passage as a generation, such as the one between father and son. Throughout the film Bertolucci blurs the distinction between the father and the son. They bear the same name; look identical, and are played by the same actor, Guilio Brogi. In the flashbacks his father’s three friends are also played by the same actors, which maintains the same age difference between them and the father as between them and the son in the present. In one sequence past and present are blurred when the film cuts between identical high speed lateral tracking shots of the father and the son as they run away from the same three characters in the exact same space. Only time separates them, but that too seems to be overcome when the quick cutting fuses the two bodies into one. In a more startling fusion of past and present, Draifa is in close-up speaking to Athos Jr. standing directly off-frame to the left of the camera, while Athos Sr. is visible in the background looking out of a screen window. Near the end of the film events in the present begin to mirror those of the past. The young Athos becomes the father’s alter ego. He has become an integral part of Tara’s myths, history and legends. In a sense he has entered history. The long takes are a physical reflection of this journey: the son joining his father in history. Here we begin to see Borges’ admiration for the Nietzschian concept of “Eternal Recurrence” informing the film. According to Nietzsche’s theory, matter is finite while time is infinite. Therefore if we consider them placed over each other, every event, action, and life will repeat again within an infinite cycle of time and history. Who is the crouching figure in the shot flanked by the two long takes? Is it the son looking thirty years into his father’s past, or the father looking ahead thirty years to the moment in time when his son will join him? The most literal reading of this temporal elongation is that Tara itself has been forgotten and relinquished to the dustbin of history, with the truth of past events as muddled and hidden as the train tracks.

History and Time as a Fork in the Square

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 2, Issue 2 / March 1998 Essays, Film Reviews bernardo bertoluccifilm styleitalian cinematemporality