Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Spider's Stratagem

Bernardo Bertolucci's The Spider's Stratagem, made in 1970, the same year as his masterpiece The Conformist, is another look at fascism, heroism, betrayal, and the lies and secrets of history. Like Bertolucci's more famous (and more fully realized) fascist parable, this film examines the deformation of character that occurs under fascist oppression, as well as the ways in which such regimes inevitably prey on the weaknesses and flaws of the people they subjugate. The film opens with a man (Giulio Brogi) arriving in the small country town of Tara. Everywhere he goes through the streets, he finds the name of Athos Magnani, a local hero commemorated with street signs and statues and buildings. This is the name of the man's father, and his own name as well, a name that's famous only in this local community, where Athos the father was an anti-fascist hero, a rebel who resisted the fascists and paid for it with his life, assassinated in a theater during an opera performance. Many years later, Athos the son has been invited to visit the town by his father's mistress Draifa (Alida Valli), because she believes that only the son can uncover the truth about the father's murder. Once he arrives, this son who looks so much like his father — Brogi plays both generations of Magnani men — wanders through this sleepy town where his father's life and death still seem so fresh after so long, where the old people (and the town is populated almost exclusively by old people, barring a few children) remember every detail of the now legendary story as though it had happened yesterday.

The film has a striking, beautiful look, a distinctive aesthetic, the beauty of which can't even be obscured by the slightly faded quality of the existing copies that can be seen. The imagery of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci's DP on The Conformist as well, is simply gorgeous, if in a very different way from the bold colors and broad palette of The Conformist. The town of Tara consists mostly of pale pink buildings with brown roofs, lending the film a sepia tone conducive to nostalgia: as soon as Athos steps into the town, it's as though he's stepping into the past. The fact that almost everyone he meets is old enough to have known his father firsthand — and to remark on the uncanny resemblance between father and son — further contributes to the impression that Athos is standing in for his own father here, returning to his father's town and his father's life, to a place that seems deeply rooted in the past. The fascist era is still fresh here. A local landowner who had been a highly placed fascist during Mussolini's reign is still a prominent figure here, with a sprawling estate guarded by thugs who rudely send Athos away when he tries to get an audience with this man. The memorials to Athos the father, seemingly on every corner, adorning every building, are more reminders of the past, more connections to a violent history. And the mystery of the anti-fascist Athos' death still hangs over everything, perpetually unsolved, lingering as an unspoken tension between the aging townspeople.

The film proceeds at a deliberate, plodding pace, as Athos visits with his father's three friends — Gaibazzi (Pippo Campanini), Rasori (Franco Giovanelli) and Costa (Tino Scotti) — and with Draifa, who seems determined to get the son to hang around as a replacement for the father. Bertolucci weaves flashbacks into the fabric of the story, skipping back and forth without warning from the present day to the past, to the time leading up to Athos' murder. These flashbacks are disorienting and odd, perhaps intentionally so, because Bertolucci makes no attempt to disguise the continuity between the aged characters of the present and their supposedly younger counterparts of nearly forty years ago. This doesn't make much difference with Brogi, playing father and son at roughly similar ages thirty-four years apart, but it's jarring when Draifa and the father's three friends appear to be just as old in the past as they are in the present. It lends a subtle surrealism to the film, and also a sense of casual disregard for the niceties of cinematic storytelling. There's a similarly jarring aesthetic at work in a scene where Athos the son meets with the formerly fascist landowner, sitting in separate boxes at the theater, initially separated by several tiers, but by the end of the scene they're suddenly sitting in adjacent boxes as they talk. It's puzzling, and utterly unexplained, just a weird disjunction to break up the film's smooth, languid meandering.

Another weird moment occurs when Athos the son goes out walking at night and is suddenly swarmed by the townspeople, pouring out of a bar as if spurred on by an unseen, unheard signal, encircling him and chasing him. It's as though the town itself is seeking to expel this interloper who's digging around in its past, trying to uncover the solutions to mysteries that many wish had been buried for good with the end of the fascist era. The film is about forgetting, about mythmaking, about the process by which the violence and tumult of history eventually settles into a digestible account for posterity. Athos stirs up the ugly history of the fascist era with his questions and his curiosity, and he finds that nobody, on either side of that struggle, wants the old wounds reopened. Only Draifa, still smarting from love and loss, wants to really think about the past; everyone else is content with the official version of events, with the myth of Athos the hero, mysteriously murdered by his fascist enemies.

In a scene late in the film — one of the best sequences in the film — Athos the father delivers a grand speech on the importance of heroes, on the importance of illusion and appearance over truth and reality. As he speaks, he walks around the perimeter of a tower overlooking the pink-and-brown conformity of Tara's tightly packed houses, his own form a brownish-black outline, a shadow overlaid on the town, predicting his future status as a local icon. It's as though, as he speaks, he's already becoming abstracted, already taking on his status as a historical figure with a set story, a grand tale of murder and intrigue that, as Athos the son instantly recognizes earlier in the film, is related to such famous legends as Shakespeare's MacBeth and Julius Caesar.

The film's ideas are fascinating, but the film itself isn't always as enthralling as the concepts it explores. The acting is almost uniformly flat and affectless, with few flashes of genuine feeling, and the elliptical storytelling only adds to the sense of aimlessness and distance. It often feels like a loose, half-formed story has been folded around an essay, and the result is that the film is constantly slipping back and forth from languid to simply boring. There are numerous beautiful, striking moments here — Athos the father dancing defiantly with a girl as the glaring fascists look on; Athos and his friends plotting to kill Mussolini, all of them ecstatically shouting, "boom! boom!" as they imagine blowing up the dictator; a dreamlike sequence with lion tamers trying to catch an escaped circus lion — but the disconnected moments never quite add up to a coherent, satisfying whole. The Spider's Stratagem is thematically rich but narratively slack, its characters archetypal and minimally defined, with little personality or specificity.


DavidEhrenstein said...

This is a quite lovely little film -- very faithful to the Borges story on which it's based. Bertolucci treats the town as if it were a set built especially for him. Most striking of all is the way he refuses to alter Alida Valli in relation to the age of her character -- be scenes set in the "past" or the "present." That's because the film exists in an eternal "present" from which there's no escape.

Allen Midgette has a cameo as a sailor.

Erich Kuersten said...

Hmmm, thanks for your lovely review Ed... speaking of which, I see here in Brooklyn that the BAM is doing a big Hawks retrospective later this year, and remembering your old 'early Hawks' blogathon, can I be the first to request you do a part 2, like 'late Hawks' sometime in late summer/early fall?

Sam Juliano said...

"The film has a striking, beautiful look, a distinctive aesthetic, the beauty of which can't even be obscured by the slightly faded quality of the existing copies that can be seen. The imagery of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci's DP on The Conformist as well, is simply gorgeous, if in a very different way from the bold colors and broad palette of The Conformist. The town of Tara consists mostly of pale pink buildings with brown roofs..."

I completely agree Ed, and again you've penned a magnificent essay. However I do not agree that we can define this masterful film as "narratively slack," or at least not look at this as some kind of serious artistic misstep. After all this was intended within the sphere of Bertlucci's transition period, where he deliberately blended past and present, real and fiction, and within the interpretation of character, hero and traitor. (this was a conscious and intended style) I think you are being too hard on this film, which is one of my favorite Bertoluccis for a host of reasons, which include it's eminence as a precursor to LAST TANGO with it's acute examination of sexual and political ideology, and it's rapturous tone poem aesthetic, compelling sense of mystery and intrigue, and it's lush, operatic textures. It can not be forgotten either, that the use of the music of one of opera's greatest composers, Guiseppe Verdi, comes into ravishing play in the film. The use of Verdi is meant to recall the political struggles of the past in a condemnation of fascism, and Verdis is one of the country's biggest heroes.

You've given this great film much praise in this review, so I'm not really sure if I am in serious disagreement in the end analysis, but I do feel that in broaching this film, just about everything comes up trumps.

Sam Juliano said...

That's great news there from Erich Kuersten about the upcoming Hawks retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but sad news for my wallet and for my family.


Ed Howard said...

David, I think I disagree that the film is set in an eternal present - it's more like an eternal past that's lingering over everything, making it impossible to live life in the present without being surrounded by the fascist history of Italy and the horrors of the war.

Erich, good idea on a sequel Hawks blogathon. I'm not sure I'll be doing it — among other reasons, I've now written a lot about most Hawks films — but maybe someone should.

Sam, you obviously like this film more than me, but I do find a lot to like here. It just doesn't quite work on the whole as well as The Conformist, which treads thematically related ground much more assuredly. I have similarly ambivalent feelings about Last Tango itself - like that film, this one is often more interesting to think about than it is to watch. I love the use of setting and color, though, and find much of the rest interesting, even if in the end it's not a favorite.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Maybe. But the grass growing over the rails in the last shot indicates a past rather than a present.