Revisiting Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem, which will be screened as part of Venice Classics

Baradwaj Rangan

Aug 08, 2019 17:06:42 IST

In 1944, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges published a short story titled Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (original Spanish title: Tema del traidor y del héroe). The protagonist, Ryan, sets out to write a biography about his great-grandfather, a nationalist hero who was killed in a theatre on the eve of the Irish rebellion in 1824. Who is the assassin? Why do the details around the tragedy seem derived from literary works like Macbeth and Julius Caesar? Investigating these questions, Ryan discovers that his great-grandfather was actually a traitor. Rather than reveal his betrayal to the public and destroy their spirit, his co-conspirators decide to stage his death in a dramatic – and yes, Shakespearean – fashion that transforms the man into a myth. A line from John Ford’s similarly themed The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance comes to mind: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

 Revisiting Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem, which will be screened as part of Venice Classics

A still from The Spider’s Stratagem. MUBI

In 1970, Bernardo Bertolucci adapted this Borges story into one of his most memorable films, The Spider’s Stratagem. (It was made for Italian television.) Along with The Conformist (released around the same time), this was the beginning of the director’s legendary collaboration with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who shares a credit, here, with Franco Di Giacomo). They worked together for over two decades, up to Little Buddha (1993). (The only exception, in between, was Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man, in 1981, shot by Carlo di Palma.) Visions of Light, the 1992 documentary about the art of cinematography, says: “The Conformist is almost a compendium of all of cinema language. It incorporates almost all the design, photographic, editorial techniques that had been developed, and does so in a very coherent and clear way.” What stands out in Spider’s Stratagem, though, is the sinful use of colour, right from the opening shot, where the camera pans from rows of green shrubbery to an oncoming train that’s fire-engine red to the mango-yellow station.

These overripe colours underline the story’s distance from reality – this is, after all, about fiction that becomes truth. The characters, too, seem to be… well, characters, rather than real people. In a restaurant, Athos Magnani  – the protagonist – asks, “Aren’t there any young people in this town?” One man comes up and says, “[I’m] 75, and my girlfriend’s expecting.” Another man comes up and says, “I’m 74, and I’ll buy a drink for anyone who pisses further than me.” These are the “madmen, old men and old madmen” that make up the quaint town of Tara – and the name of this fictional place could be Bertolucci hat-tipping the setting of the Borges short story. According to tradition, Tara was the inauguration place and seat of the High Kings of Ireland, and you may remember that Scarlett O’Hara’s plantation, in Gone With the Wind, was called Tara, too. (Her father was Irish.)

Bertolucci changes the venue of the “staged” assassination from a theatre to an opera house. The set-up is appropriately heated. Athos isn’t a dry biographer. His father’s mistress has reached out to him, and she’s the one who instigates him to look into his father’s death. Yes, father – not the great-grandfather of the Borges story. And this is the most interesting of Bertolucci’s changes. Athos and his father share the same name, and they are played by the same actor, Giulio Brogi. “Identical. Just look, identical, really identical,” a hotel manager marvels upon seeing the younger Athos. In flashbacks, we see Athos the father, but his friends seem to be the same seventy-somethings in the younger Athos’s timeline. The surrealism is most pointed in a conversation the younger Athos has with one of his father’s “real friends”, a salami-taster named Gaibazzi. In a meat-house whose walls are as pink as flesh, the scenes fade-in and fade-out, as though slipping in and out of memory.

The father/son parallels are personal to Bertolucci. He told Vulture, “My father once told me, ‘You’ve killed me so many times in your movies.’ Even though Athos chooses to keep his father’s myth alive, this was the beginning of a liberation from the father figure for me. When I shot this film, in the summer of 1969, I had started to go to a shrink. I’d chosen this Borges short story, and it was perfect for the beginning of analysis, because it was all about the son and the father. And I was seeing my father as Athos Magnani sees his father – as a hero and as a traitor… And at the very end of the film, he realizes that he is in a prison, because he sees that the train tracks leading out of town are covered in grass, which means that no train has passed through this town for a long time. So he’s a prisoner of time, a prisoner of that story, and a prisoner of his father.”

Here’s a great spin-off anecdote I found in a blog called Out of the Zone. The writer of the post was watching The Dark Knight, and “the overly moral nature of the film” made him recall the Borges short story that inspired The Spider’s Stratagem. “Batman’s eventual decision (spoiler alert) to take the fall for Harvey Dent/Two Face’s spree of murderous retribution is described in a little more pointed detail in Borges’ story. Borges makes a point to highlight the cyclical nature of rebellion and the transference of societal power: one group of conspirators or agents create a narrative of moral, political and social triumph – not only at any cost of life but also at cost of fact and distortion of reality.” What’s really bizarre, in the Borges story, is the conspirator who wrote the “script” around the protagonist’s great-grandfather’s death, using those bits from Macbeth and Julius Caesar. His name is… Nolan.

Updated Date: Aug 08, 2019 17:55:24 IST