The Spider’s Stratagem



(Strategia del Ragno)
Italy 1970
Bernardo Bertolucci
97 mins

At barely three and a half pages, Borges’ ‘Theme of the Traitor and Hero’ must be the one of the shortest – if not the shortest – stories ever to be turned into a full-length movie. Except it isn’t really a short story at all, more a loose outline that the unidentified narrator (presumably Borges) intends to develop into a proper-length tale, one day. ‘Traitor and hero’ is a rough sketch of a wider project – what the film world nowadays would call a pitch.

Bertolucci’s version transposes the action from 19th century Ireland to 20th century Italy: thirtysomething Athos Magnani (Guilio Brogi) arrives in Tara, the small rural town where, 34 years before, his heroic, anti-Fascist father – also Athos (also Brogi) – was assassinated. Young Athos has been summoned (we aren’t told where from – in fact, we’re told nothing about his life away from Tara) by Draifa (Alida Valli), his father’s mistress, after she spotted his photograph in a newspaper. We aren’t told where he’s been summoned from – in fact, we’re told nothing about his life before he gets to Tara. Tara asks him to solve the riddle of his father’s death and, though initially reluctant, he ends up doing just that.

It’s an intriguing, dazzlingly original story – but those unfamiliar with the original may find the way it’s dramatised somewhat lacking in incident. We switch nimbly between the past (1936) and the present (1970), but most of the action is described, rather than actually shown – if it even happens at all. Bertolucci uses the Borges story as the starting point for an elegant, enigmatic slice of psycholog. Athos Magnani is one divided being, his twin halves unstuck in time – the supporting actors play their earlier selves in the many flashbacks, with no make-up or attempt to make them appear any older – while Tara itself remains in a time-warp, crumbling, silent, (under)populated by static oldsters, like a stage set designed by De Chirico. Bright arc lights illuminate the buildings at night, throwing the shadows beyond into sharper, darker contrast.

On this stage, the two Magnanis are the sole active figures, vivid performers in a seductive dream that occasionally veers towards the nightmarish – young Magnani is stranded in a town full of hostile ‘strangers’ who seem to somehow know him, know all about him, and the film’s baffling final tracking shot indicates entrapment. But who is the spider? And what is his (or, indeed, her) stratagem? Ultimately, too much is left opaque. Borges never got around to filling in the blanks on his canvas (“this investigation is one of the gaps in my plot,” he concedes) but that doesn’t excuse Bertolucci from coming up with satisfactory possibilities of his own. The Spider’s Stratagem weaves a magical, seductive atmosphere – then stops.

5th January 2001