by Mimmo Rafele
It was 1969. While the first man was about to set foot on the moon, in the Po Lowlands, between Sabbioneta and the Mincio River, at summer’s beginning, The Spider’s Stratagem came to light. A very low cost film for television, entirely funded by RAI, to be made primarily for the small screen. It was to be a no-frills production shot in 16mm, and, in order to save money, Bernardo surrounded himself with a team of very young or rookie collaborators, including myself, hired as… a script supervisor (in most other “normal” crews this job was usually given to a woman, so you can imagine the jokes made about my manhood…). Among these newcomers was his brother Giuseppe, who was thrown onto the set to get over a failed love story, and from this experience he too would become a great director. And there was a debuting cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro …
Maybe it was because of this almost family-like atmosphere, or the lack of anxiety about the results (there was no Auditel and RAI had an audience monopoly). Maybe it was because Bernardo knew that right after it he would make a much more ambitious movie with a major American film company, The Conformist. The fact remains that our “little” film – perhaps because it was supposed to be a minor work – was made in a total state of grace.
One of the last times we had dinner together, Bernardo recalled that perfect atmosphere and asked me why it was that we were so happy during the shooting, shut up within the walls of a beautiful but empty town like Sabbioneta, attacked by mosquitoes, in that scorching summer in the Po Lowlands. The reason, I replied, is that we all – from him down to the last extra – had the vague sensation we were participating in the creation of something special. Bernardo nodded, and his face lit up with one of those mysterious, somewhat oriental smiles.
It’s a fact that the two leads performed a marvelous duet in perfect harmony, even though it could not have been possible to find two more diverse actors (Alida Valli, the great diva of yore, and Giulio Brogi, an icon of contemporary auteur cinema). That Tino Scotti, a comic actor often cast in farcical parts, gave the performance of a lifetime in his only (and last) dramatic role. That two of Bernardo’s friends, who had never even seen a movie set, acted superbly in two minor but significant parts. That this young and unknown cameraman, Vittorio Storaro, tried his hand with a revolutionary form of cinematography (clear blue nights, like in a painting by Magritte, shot at dusk with light only from real sources and without traditional “diffused” lighting). That in the flashbacks, because of the budget, the characters are always the same age, creating an extraordinary effect that is both surreal and moving. In other words, to us it was as if a kind of miracle was taking place before our eyes: this “small production” fought against its destiny as a “minor” work and, almost against its creator’s intentions, gradually became a masterpiece.
That’s what I always thought until now, and that’s what I told Bernardo at that last dinner together.
Yet now, as I write these lines, I think of that Buddha-like smile of his and realize that maybe that wasn’t really how things went. Maybe he had actually planned everything. A week before filming started, he changed the film’s format: not 16mm and a hand-held camera, but 35mm (with live sound recording, which meant using a movie camera with two grips to lift it…), and tracks and dollies. What was the point if the film was just for the small screen, which furthermore was only in black and white? And then there was the first screening of the dailies that made everyone freeze: you could only see shadows. The “veterans”, who had observed how Storaro used light, nudged each other (I told you he was strange…), Vittorio, confident of his work, kept saying it was just a technical problem, Bernardo seized the moment and changed film laboratory: it would be printed by Technicolor, where only the great films go, and to hell with the costs. When the reprinted material came back, even the “veterans” were in awe. It was beautiful. It was something that had never been seen before.
These were the moves that made it possible for this “small” film to become a “big” one. And Bernardo, the only person to foresee all of it and make it happen, worked (building enthusiasm among his special crew of beginners) so that, day by day, frame by frame, a masterpiece was born. So there was a vision and a conscious design.
The spider’s stratagem.