Monday, December 14, 2015

Film Review: The Spider's Stratagem

"The Spider's Stratagem"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

History. We are told it is written by the winners. What exactly does that mean? History is subjective? It is a matter of perspective?

You may think about that while watching Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Spider's Stratagem" (1970), the fifth feature-length movie directed by the famous Italian filmmaker.

"The Spider's Stratagem", like most of Mr. Bertolucci's films, is about politics but the movie is also about history, fact vs fiction, identity and moral questions concerning government propaganda and propaganda in general and the question of whether or not a lie is ever more important than the truth.

So we ask ourselves about history. Who is writing history? What is their agenda? Is the truth ever, for lack of a better word, "fudged" a bit?

Mr. Bertolucci based "The Spider's Stratagem" on a short story written by Jorge Borges entitled "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero" however it is the first cinematic example of Mr. Bertolucci coming into his own style as a filmmaker and addressing themes and topics which would preoccupy his career. Prior to "The Spider's Stratagem" Mr. Bertolucci was under the heavy influence of the French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard.

We follow Athos Magnani (Giulio Brogi) as he arrives in a small Italian town called Tara where his father, also named Athos, lived and is considered a local hero. Athos was a socialist activist who was killed by the fascists. The viewer sees a statute of Athos, a cultural center named after him, even a street. The townspeople fondly remember him and keep his name and spirit alive.

The young Athos has arrived in the town at the request of his father's mistress, Draifa (Alida Valli), who believes the man that murdered Athos lives in the town among them and she wants Athos to find the person (s) responsible.

In a small town news travels fast and the townspeople do not like the idea of a stranger coming into their town stirring up trouble, especially if that stranger is going to change the town's image of the great Athos Magnani. So, while the initial reaction may be happiness to see the young Athos, the townspeople soon make it clear the young Athos is not welcome.

"The Spider's Stratagem" though is not a thriller. The movie doesn't take place in shadows as the young Athos fears for his life and is met with constant death threats. Villagers don't march to his hotel room with pitch folks and torches.

Instead Mr. Bertolucci begins to show us a story of history repeating itself and the blurry line between fact and fiction. The movie switches time periods between the modern day (the 1970s) and 1936, when the father Athos and his comrades conspired to assassinate Mussolini and the year Athos was murdered, but Mr. Bertolucci uses the same actors to play the younger versions of themselves and in the case of Athos the same actor plays father and son, which may confuse audiences as they try to decipher which time period they are watching. And that may very well be the point.

There is also a Freudian undercurrent to "The Spider's Stratagem". First, there is the choice to have the same actor play both father and son, suggesting the son lives in the shadow of his father. The father then becomes part of the son's identity. There is the Draifa character. She soon begins to "replace" the memory of Athos with the son, even revealing she would like to sleep with him. But, are the lines between past and present blurry to her? Does she think she is talking to the father Athos when she looks at the son? And what about the concept of a son sleeping with the same woman his father slept with? Freud would have a lot to say about that.

Many have and will suggest "The Spider's Stratagem" has something in common with Mr. Bertolucci's "The Conformist" (1970) as well as later films Mr. Bertolucci directed. "The Conformist" was the breakthrough Mr. Bertolucci needed to appeal to American audiences. In that movie Mr. Bertolucci found a perfect story to blend politics and sex and turn it into cinematic art. "The Spider's Stratagem" feels like an early draft yet "The Conformist" was released first (!). Mr. Bertolucci did direct another movie about fascist and socialist and history called "1900" (1977). That movie had more ambition, it wanted to tell the story of Italy, but didn't quite live up to its expectations. "The Spider's Stratagem" is a "smaller" movie but works much better.

By the end of the movie viewers may ask themselves, what exactly is Mr. Bertolucci trying to tell us? You may not find all the answers to that question after one viewing however "The Spider's Stratagem" has a lot of ideas and meaning. It is the work of a master storyteller.