Director Bernardo Bertolucci

Screenplay Bernardo Bertolucci, Eduardo de Gregorio and Marilù Parolini, based on Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” (1944)

Cinematography (Eastmancolor, 35mm, 1.37:1) Vittorio Storaro, Franco Di Giacomo; cameramen: Enrico Umetelli, Beppe Lanci

Production and costume design Maria Paola Maino

Film editing Roberto Perpignani

Music Excerpts from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto and Attila, Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2, Op. 38; Giuseppe Blanc’s Giovinezza; Mina and Martelli’s Come un fior (aka Il conformista)

Sound (Monophonic, live recording) Giorgio Pelloni

Assistant director Giuseppe Bertolucci

Script Mimmo Rafele

Production stills Marilù Parolini

Screen credits paintings by Antonio Ligabue

Cast Giulio Brogi (Athos Magnani son and father), Alida Valli (Draifa), Pippo Campanini (Gaibazzi), Franco Giovanelli (Rasori), Tino Scotti (Costa), Allen Midgette (sailor), Claudio Cerioli (boy at the hotel), Chiara Regina (girl at Draifa’s house), Attilio Viti (lion tamer), Giuseppe Bertolucci (lion’s head carrier) and the musicians of the Concerto Cantoni di Colorno

Producer Giovanni Bertolucci for Red Film / RAI-tv; production manager: Aldo U. Passalacqua

Distributor Aiace

Running time 110′

Filming Sabbioneta, Pomponesco, Villa Longari Ponzone (Rivarolo del Re), Brescello Railway Station, Teatro Magnani (Fidenza); July-August 1969

First public screening 31st Venice Film Festival, August 1970

First TV broadcast RaiUno, October 25, 1970 (repeated once on November 1)

 

 

The film

 

Athos senior – Listen. For Tara, for the entire region, my name means rebellion, courage. If they learn of my betrayal, all our work will become useless. Understand?

You won’t be the ones to kill me! Even a dead traitor is damaging. What would be more useful is… A hero. A hero, yes! Whom people can love. I will be ignobly murdered by a fascist. We’ll put on a dramatic show, that wil be etched into the people’s imagination so they will continue to hate, hate, hate fascism even more. It will be the legendary death of a hero: a great theatrical performance.

We will rehearse. We will rehearse like in theater. Hundreds of actors, all of the people of Tara will be part of it, without knowing it. All Tara will become one big theater.

 

Athos Magnani arrives by train alone in Tara, where his father’s old mistress Draifa has asked him to come and find out the truth about his father’s murder years ago in 1936. Even though Athos never knew his father – who died before he was born – they share the same name and have a remarkable resemblance. Hence the confusion of the town’s inhabitants, who continue to celebrate the legacy of their local anti-fascist hero.

As Athos proceeds with his investigation, including conflicting testimony of the deceased’s friends and enemies, it becomes clear that the official version is hiding something… Until he finds out that it was not a “fascist bullet” that took his father, but his father’s fellow conspirators, convinced by him to stage his execution – for an alleged betrayal – as an act by fascists in order to anchor the entire population’s hatred of the fascist regime…

Instead of making this newfound “truth” public, Athos decides to confirm the legend before going back home. He too though becomes a prisoner of his father’s web, when he looks at the train tracks and realizes that trains stopped coming to Tara some time ago.

 

The very first experience with psychoanalysis marked the transition from the chaos of Partner to the unexpected structural harmony of The Spider’s Strategem. Dreams and the Oedipus complex run through this small gem of “magic realism”, which won the Luis Buñuel award. Behind the double-barreled mystery that is a front for descending into the innermost sanctum of the director’s unconscious, the film is also an ideological reflection on the post-war years. So, as the story unfolds, the point becomes not so much knowing whether the hero was a traitor or not, but understanding the “why”…

Considered by some to be an unusual remake of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1964) set in the Po lowlands, The Spider’s Stratagem is echoed in John Sayles’s Lone Star (1995).

 

At least half of the film is blue like some of Magritte’s paintings because I shot a lot during the brief interlude of light between day and evening. It’s a color you get only for a few minutes after the sun has set in summer, if you film without using filters. It’s a very special, distinct blue that all cameramen dreaded at the time. We started shooting when a normal cameraman would have said “enough”.

Bernardo Bertolucci in Enzo Ungari, Scene madri di Bernardo Bertolucci, Ubulibri, 1982

Press Review

 

In the climate of hallucination, of calm and measured madness that immediately surrounds him and is the tone (“Magrittean”, to borrow an adjective suggested by the director himself) of the entire story, he slowly discovers that actually the hero was a traitor. Was he traitor due to cowardice or “strategy” so as to sacrifice himself as a martyr of freedom?

Rigging the traitor’s assassination by his friends so that it looked like a crime by their adversaries was actually the victim’s idea. Once his son finds out the truth, he understands that he can only use it for himself. The gravestones must stay where they are. Around this theme based on a short story by Borges, Bertolucci builds an enchanting film with the slightly soured tenderness of its images and the precision of its bizarre or tender details. I would say that it is this tenderness, this clear-eyed, affectionate yet chilling rediscovery, as if marred by the breath of death, of a landscape an a people […] that is the crucial aspect of The Spider’s Stratagem, creating and illustrating its subtle and constant poetic tension. It is as if the mystification of the image of the father, who the main character […] pursues, in the hands of the director, is turned into a poignant tribute to the image of his own childhood, his native places and his filial devotion.

Giovanni Raboni, Venezia, Cineforum, No. 95-96, XIX, October 1970

 

After the contrasting, chaotic style filled with references and fashionable digressions of Partner, Bertolucci created a spotless, luminous film, in which he reclaims the expressive jouissance seen in Before the Revolution […]. In this movie, however, the director is not just an admirable painter of small-town Italy […] He moves like a master on the thin line between the real and the imaginary, in a game that fascinates many contemporary filmmakers, from [André] Delvaux to [Ruy] Guerra. What brings to mind here the author of One Night… A Train is not just Bertolucci’s citation of Magritte, but also his depiction of crystal-clear nights, and his search for the fantastic element in the day-to-day. Perfectly natural rustic scenes […] set the ground for a journey into memory, into an anguishing encounter with the past. Athos runs through the streets of Tara, whose inhabitants remain motionless at the crossroads, and finally comes to a place where the Rigoletto is heard again. Caught in the trap of truth, he refuses to divulge it and returns to the station to catch the train that had taken him there. At the station, he stares at the train tracks now covered in weeds […] Bertolucci is a poet who forces on us great acts of boldness: the roles of the father’s comrades, for example, are played by the same actors, without make-up, in the scenes relating to both the present and the past, and we accept such strangeness as a supplement of realism. […] Bertolucci, it seems, recovered his exhilaration at making movies and shares it with us, until we suddenly find ourselves, stunned, on the threshold of the unknown.

Michel Ciment, La Stratégie de l’araignée, Positif, No. 121, XVIII, November 1970

 

A film for those who loved or didn’t love Last Tango in Paris: made economically, with television funding, considering it Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece is not an arbitrary statement. Shot in Sabbioneta and Pomponesco, it is the Po Valley version of “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”, a story set in Ireland by Jorge Luis Borges and part of his Ficciones. Athos Magnani, son and namesake of an anti-fascist hero worshipped in a small town of the Po Lowlands, like Oreste returns to his father’s homeland to find out who murdered his parent. His probing of the memory of the old militants encounters immediate difficulty and delves into a zone of silence that is hardly compatible with the hedonistic and extroverted world of culatello and Lambrusco. There is an unpleasant revelation at the end of this itinerary, followed with compulsive obstinacy, but also the awareness that truth matters more than myth. In recent years, we have seen very few films imagined and written in such an inspired state, with the slightly fraught levity of certain scores by Mozart. Yet for Bertolucci it was clearly a matter of questioning, almost psychoanalytically, a very private ethnic and cultural heritage: he did it with unwavering courage and poignant elegance. For those who already saw it on TV, on the big screen The Spider’s Stratagem also has an exquisite palette of colors; and Giulio Brogi’s double performance as the father and son is one of the finest in recent Italian cinema: that’s what having true artistic talent means in being an actor.

Tullio Kezich, Panorama, No. 364, XI, April 12th 1973

 

The story Bertolucci was inspired by is […] a very short story by Borges, [that] takes place in the past “in an oppressed and tough country” that the writer indicates as Ireland. A conspirator was assassinated in mysterious circumstances, and the crime has not yet been solved. Many years later, a descendant of his investigates this crime to find out the truth, and, little by little, he comes across disturbing clues of a “pre-established harmony”. […] Some narrative and set choices bring to life Borges’s theme of “pre-established harmony”. There are basically three: Tara, in reality Sabbioneta, a magical city with harmonious architecture built in the 16th century by a Gonzaga of Mantua, whose Renaissance layout has remained intact and, with its parallel lines, squares and large spaces, is the setting of Athos the son’s journey back through time. The melodrama, Verdi’s Rigoletto, whose music punctuates the whole pre-finale and the mystery’s solution. Also a drama of betrayal and disguise, it echoes and harmonizes with the drama of the traitor wearing the mask of a hero. Last, the staged performance: the original one behind the mystery of Athos Magnani’s assassination; and the new one planned for Athos the son. The original tableau, which borrows from the great dramas of history and literature, is “parodied” in the sort of clumsy “family spectacle” staged by Draifa and the three friends (who are joined by […] the local fascist).

Lucilla Albano, Strategia di un linguaggio, CinemaSessanta, No. 132, XX, March-April, 1980

 

Yet it was The Spider’s Stratagem (1970) rather than The Conformist (made just afterward and released the same year) that renewed my faith in his talent. Both movies, like Before the Revolution and Partner, were the flamboyant expressions of a guilt-ridden leftist, a spoiled rich kid with a baroque imagination and a social conscience that yielded dark and decadent ideas about privilege and guiltless fancies about sex. Where they differed for me was in the degree to which The Conformist succumbed to fashionable embroidery, a stylishness that took the place of style.

It was the relatively big budget The Conformist, an adaptation of an Alberto Moravia novel, that made Bertolucci’s name in the world market and so influenced American movies that Coppola’s Godfather trilogy would have been inconceivable without it. But it was the more ponderous and adventurous The Spider’s Stratagem — a TV commission adapted from a Jorge Luis Borges story, “Theme of the Traitor and Hero” — that showed Bertolucci truly grappling with his material and not merely with his markets. His mise en scène may have overwhelmed his content, marking him as a mannerist, but there was nothing glib about that content, and the mise en scène was more than just decorative. But both elements were too European to capture the American market — unlike the glossier The Conformist, so decorous it suggested one of Marshall Field’s window displays.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Back in Style, Chicago Reader, June 11th 1999

 

The Spider’s Stratagem is not, as you’ve probably gathered, a mass-audience movie. It will have most appeal to people sensitive to Bertolucci’s audacious use of camera movements and colors; Pauline Kael said a long time ago that, of all directors influenced by Godard, Bertolucci has been the only one to extend Godard’s way of looking, instead of just copying. The Spider’s Stratagem documents that, and is better to look at than analyze.

Roger Ebert, The Chicago-Sun Times, June 1999

Contributions

 

One day, when we were doing The Spider’s Stratagem, we were filming a sequence in which the main character discovers that his dead father, who has been deified in a small Italian town as an anti-Fascist hero, actually betrayed his friends by telling the police about their plot to kill Mussolini. In a flashback, we see his father’s anti-Fascist friends take him to a tower overlooking the city, where they plan to kill him. But in a final attempt to redeem himself, he tells them that they should instead stage his murder in public, in a way that will make it seem as if he was really killed by the Fascists; this will immortalise him as a hero, and ensure that the people of the town will continue to oppose Fascism.

When we arrived at the location in Sabbioneta to shoot the sequence, I found myself lost technically. We were up on a tower in a bright sunlight, and all I had was one Sun Gun to light the actors. I thought that no matter what I did, the scene would look terrible. So I asked myself, “Why should we see this man? He’s becoming a symbol, so why don’t we transform him into a silhouette?” Of course, let me be honest here: part of the reason I tried to convince Bernardo to shoot the scene that way was because I had no light! [Laughter]. I told him we could shoot the first part of the scene normally, lighting the actors with the Sun Gun; then, when our protagonist walked toward the sunlit view of the town, we would turn off the light and transform him into a silhouette, in a way that would make our intention for the scene perfectly clear. By shooting the scene that way, I was able to symbolically represent the unconscious of the protagonist, and at the same time visually represent the way Bertolucci is telling the story – from the unconscious side.

Vittorio Storaro, “Shadows of Psyche”, interview by John Bailey and Stephen Pizzello, American Cinematographer, 80, No. 2, LXXX, February 2001

 

The Spider’s Stratagem

A film from 1969.

Forty years ago.

Wow, so long ago! It seems like yesterday.

What a great ambience there was, buzzing with the enthusiasm and professional expertise of people who believed in what they were doing and felt useful.

What lights, what atmosphere, and the evenings spent talking and talking in the little restaurant in Sabbioneta.

What characters, what individuals: the legendary Alida Valli (Draifa), the grotesque and tragic Tino Scotti (Costa), Pippo Campanini (Gaibazzi), the witty culatello artist, the thirty-year-old Bernardo Bertolucci who was full of energy and imagination, the even younger Vittorio Storaro who was ready even then for brilliant undertakings.

What an atmosphere!

I admit to being caught in that spider’s web spun with threads of poetry, love, passion and dedication creating hope for a less boorish world.

Nostalgia? And how!

I love this film.

I shoot it and re-shoot it continuously on the set of my memory.

Giulio Brogi, Verona, October 7th 2008, from the catalogue Bernardo Bertolucci, Homenagem ao homem e à sua obra / Tribute to the man and his oeuvre, Estoril Film Festival, December 2008