The Spider’s Stratagem follows the logic of a dream like Partner, but it is a dream that is captivating instead of frightening, with the seduction of Borges instead of the violence of Artaud.
It is also an example of cinéma-vérité. The extras were all characters I had known and idealized as a child. I shot the film in a state of trance similar to a dream; it is the dream of a film, a cinéma-vérité of memory. My brother Giuseppe was my assistant, Vittorio Storaro the director of photography, for the first time, and my crew was reduced to the bare minimum. It was 38 degrees Celsius in the shade, and the film is permeated with the buzzing of the Po’s fat mosquitoes.
The Spider’s Stratagem does not seem Italian, even if it’s about fascism and dedicated to the region of Emilia Romagna.
The Po for me is both the Nile and the Mississippi. The Spider’s Stratagem is the first film I made “in minor”, musically speaking. It relentlessly chases shadow and leaves. The green of the countryside during the month of August seen in the film does not exist anywhere else in the world.
The light brings out the colors, but the shadows slowly eat away at them.
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”.
The colors are fairy-tale colors, but the story is a very political one.
In The Spider’s Stratagem, the relationship between Athos the son and Athos the father is like the one I imagined between Berlinguer and Togliatti: the son who discovers the betrayal of the heroic father is Berlinguer who discovers Togliatti’s Stalinism. But both the betrayal and Stalinism were historically necessary (or were they really?).
In terms of production history, The Spider’s Stratagem launched the series: “RAI presents a film by…”.
The Spider’s Stratagem is one of the first film-films that RAI produced, a kind of production model for future works, like Gianni Amelio’s La città del sole, Taviani’s Padre padrone or Olmi’s One Fine Day. I received the proposal just after emerging from the great public and critical fiasco for Partner. So I told myself, and others, that I wanted to forget about who was commissioning it, that I wasn’t going to think about television, and that I would make the film as if it were a film for the cinema. I wanted to exploit television to make a film that no film producer would have allowed me to make at that time. It seems to me that other directors had this attitude when they found themselves in the same situation as mine in the following years.
In fact The Spider’s Stratagem gains on the screen what it loses on television.
I remember that while I was filming it I intended to make no compromises for the television format and, as if for revenge, I was filming against television. Everyone knows that the small screen spurns full shots and long shots while it requires and showcases details and close-ups. The Spider’s Stratagem is a film only of full shots and long shots. That is why it works in the cinema and loses its intensity on television. Today, if I were to make something again for television, I would put myself again in a completely different position. I would start by trying to answer a few questions. What is television? What is the relationship between film and television today? I would let myself be totally engaged with television.
Today it often feels like you are watching television when you go to the cinema.
Film audiences, especially in the United States, are completely brainwashed by television style. Successful American films acclaimed by critics and audiences have a style that is very similar to television. Kramer Versus Kramer1 is an example of how American film today tries not only to mimic television style but also its sentimentalism. Cinema audiences tend to pick films that remind them of the domestic foyer, that prolong the ritual of the TV altar inside the walls of the home. What can we do? How do we deal with that cold light that has crept into cinema? An international strategy is needed to storm the Winter Palace of television and counter its influence on the taste of film audiences. It is not a question of convincing people, of nudging them in another direction, but of ensuring that television is just television. I think that cinema will renew itself only when television has finally found its identity. The confusion between these two means, the mutual stealing and their ambiguous relationship are the cause of a cinema devoid of style and a television devoid of identity. For example, Italian cinema of the ’70s clumsily transformed its language and structure because directors were constantly working in television and especially television advertising and ended up using, in film as well, a whole series of techniques, in particular lazily using the zoom lens, which dramatically changed the face of Italian cinema.
What should television be today?
First, contemporaneous. Today I would like to make a feuilleton for television, what Americans call a soap opera, which can have an endless number of episodes, that involves events of the day before or even the same day and combines fictional characters with the news we’re accosted with when we read the newspaper. Months ago, for example, we woke up to the scent of war after the failed American marines attack in Iran. The characters’ behavior of this feuilleton would have been influenced and changed by it. But the main way television should express its lack of contemporaneity is by broadcasting everything live. Not just the Olympics or some news clips, but plays at the theater, outdoor and indoor concerts, the work of a parliamentary committee, the hearings of a trial, the winners of a prize. Television has a quality that cinema lacks based on its widespread presence: the power to make things happen.
A few years ago in the United States, I was watching the news, when it was interrupted for a live broadcast of a dramatic event at a Saint Louis bank where a robber of color had taken refuge and was holding hostages. The police were outside the bank, and, with the help of the family and a pastor, they had managed to get the robber to come to the doorway behind a tightly closed glass door. The cameraman moved closer, going beyond the police line. The robber, who was just a kid, was shouting something incomprehensible and clutching a big gun. When he realized that it was being broadcast “live”, almost for fun, he raised the gun and pointed the tip to his temple. People started screaming: “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”. The boy waited for the cameraman to get even closer, and when he was framed in a close-up, with a desperate smile, he pulled the trigger. Because of the glass door the sound of the explosion was faint as he fell to the ground. They broke through the door, and after a few seconds the broadcast was interrupted. They cut to a short toothpaste commercial and then back to the newscast in the studio.
That boy shot himself in front of television, for television, waiting for the time of the newscast. There are events that television does not just record but, in a certain sense, provokes. We must accept the idea that television is something different from cinema, a means that is still to be explored, open and accessible. Instead what is happening today – television copying cinema and films resembling television shows – is very depressing.
The threat of television, or experiencing television as a threat, can be seen in Kramer Versus Kramer, dressed up as a soap opera, but also in Apocalypse Now, which envisions the only future for film in the creation of a visual experience that no television screen could ever contain or reproduce.
I think that’s right. In a certain sense, television’s influence is more powerful in Francis Coppola’s film, in heralding a Dolby system that in no one way can be mistaken for television.
We know what cinema was before television. What will both become?
By way of science fiction, we could imagine a few developments in the relationship between cinema and television. Today many people think, and Francis Ford Coppola is one of them, that soon films will be transmitted via satellite in every country worldwide. As a result, films are destined to waste away, to exhaust their relationship with audiences and the market as soon as they appear, where the evening of the first and last shows tend to brutally coincide. I do not find this technological outlook particularly inspiring, and I have always thought of cinema as something artisanal. Artisans work in an ongoing relationship with living things. The supertechnological cinema that is emerging would force me to accept the supremacy of dead things. Transitioning from a type of film that I like making and watching to something else is like transitioning from agriculture to industrial civilization. Filmmakers would no longer be farmers but factory workers. They would not work with nature anymore but on the assembly line. Films have always been made to make people dream, and I’m not afraid of tricks and special effects, although the ones of Star Wars2 seem less poetic to me than those of Méliès’s first films. I do find depressing, however, a cinema in which the latest special effects gimmick is clearly more important than the story, the faces and the scenery.
You have experimented with a lot of special effects in your films.
I have a rather odd relationship with special effects. Everything is fine when I can do them directly with the camera while filming. Partner, for example, is a film with special camera effects: accelerating motion, light changes, superimposition, duplicating characters. But these are very artisanal, very “natural “special effects, like Cocteau’s.
In Luna I experimented a lot trying to create a fake moon for the film. First I saw what could be done in labs in Italy. Then I went to London, and the people who had worked on Star Wars and Aliens prepared a few trial moons for me. The final result was a big moon that looked like it was straight out of “National Geographic”. I then went to some artisans/artists, underground film experimenters, like Piero Bargellini. In the end, I filmed the real moon with a telephoto lens and optical printer. I used the optical printer in the scene with the roof of the cinema opening while Joe and Arianna are watching Niagara3, and the evening sky appears with a big moon and the silhouette of some plain Roman buildings enhanced by the darkness. And in the last scene, when a full moon shines over the ruins of Caracalla. Initially, Storaro and I had dreamed up very complicated and sophisticated special effects. But I’m at a loss with technology; it makes me completely powerless and feel a sense of despair and solitude. If I have to change a car tire, I can get by better than Jill Clayburgh in Luna, and I’ve never been able to take a picture that was in focus or properly exposed.
- Kramer vs. Kramer by Robert Benton, USA, 1979.
- Star Wars by George Lucas, USA, 1977.
- Niagara by Henry Hathaway, USA, 1953.
[in Scene madri di Bernardo Bertolucci, edited by Enzo Ungari, Ubulibri, Milan, 1982.]