There’s an overwhelming sense of stasis in the images of Strategia del ragno (The Spider’s Stratagem, 1970), as the film effortlessly embraces both nature (the beauty of the Italian countryside; the summer trees in full bloom) and the mysterious reaches of human memory, shot with a directness and clarity missing from most contemporary cinema. The film is in no hurry to tell its story, which chronicles the quixotic quest of a young man, Athos Magnani (Giulio Brogi) in search of the “truth” – if such a thing is possible – surrounding the death of his supposedly martyred father, also named Athos Magnani, and also played by Brogi, in a film that mixes the past and the present until what is happening seems more like a dream than a straightforward narrative.

The set-up honours the tradition of a long line of genre films: Athos the son is a young man who has come to the sleepy town of Tara, where his father is revered as someone who defied the fascists during World War II, and nearly every street, school or store is named after Athos the elder. Indeed, there’s a bust of Athos senior in the middle of the town square, but the town is far from bustling with activity. It seems more like a ghost town, populated by ageing phantoms who seem to exist in a zone outside of time. Athos has come to Tara at the behest of Draifa (Alida Valli) to investigate the death of his father, and perhaps to hold those who are to blame to account. But all of this more or less immediately seems almost incidental to the film’s real concerns.

Was Athos’ father a hero of the Resistance, as everyone seems to think? The son – who looks exactly like his father – gets little help from the townspeople, who offer vague suggestions as to what might have happened, and eventually offer up a wild tale of an attempted assassination of Benito Mussolini and its tragic aftermath, which Athos finds unconvincing. But when the probable truth behind his father’s death – which I will not reveal here – is at last uncovered, Athos discovers that despite wanting to tell the townspeople what he has discovered, he somehow can’t bring himself to do so; the legend, as in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), is too strong to tamper with.

But unlike Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) in Liberty Valance, Athos finds he can’t leave town at the end of the film; the train that so efficiently dropped him off in Tara in the film’s opening sequence is now running late, and, upon inspection, he notices that the tracks are overgrown with weeds, and no one seems in any hurry to get the trains running on time again. In one of the film’s many deliberate and unhurried tracking shots, the camera pans down and across into the grass as Athos waits for the train to Parma to arrive – a train, it seems, that may never come.

Vittorio Storaro’s customarily superb cinematography (assisted by Franco Di Giacomo) renders all of this with a sense of sublime detachment, and Bertolucci’s staging of the action recalls nothing so much as Alain Resnais’ L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961): the townspeople of Tara are rendered as living statues, unsure of even the slightest detail of the town’s geography, and there seems to be some doubt as to where to find a hotel for Athos when he first arrives, for example. Bertolucci’s use of the same actor for the roles of father and son adds another layer of intentional mutability to the film; we’re never really, really sure whether we are operating in the past or the present, or perhaps both. The pacing of the film is leisurely, and allows for a long semi-romantic interlude with Draifa, his late father’s mistress, who seems to see in the young Athos a chance to relive the past – something, of course, that is manifestly impossible.

In the end, it isn’t the journey of discovery that moves the film forward; it’s the mesmeric use of natural light and sound, and the seemingly unending sense of time folding back on itself, coupled with carefully selected sections of Verdi’s operas Rigoletto and Aida, that offer the true structure of the film. The relationships between Athos and Draifa and his father’s old companions are filled with half-truths, vaguely recalled incidents and unreliable assertions about past events.

Though the film is tangentially based on Jorge Luis Borges’ story Tema del traidor y del héroe (Theme of the Traitor and the Hero) – expanded into a screenplay by Bertolucci, Marilù Parolini and Eduardo de Gregorio – the structure of the film is rooted in indolence, recapitulation of past events and a sense of the impossibility of grasping any authentic historical ground. It’s the kind of thoughtful, meditative film that would be impossible to make today; it’s the sort of work that wants to lull the audience into a sort of languid torpor, and resists any definitive interpretation.

Maria Paola Maino’s production and costume design are also key factors in the spell that the film weaves for the viewer; sun-drenched but somehow desolate, verdant yet parched, shot on location to bring the highest degree of verisimilitude to unrealistic events, the world Maino creates for Bertolucci functions as a microcosm of human society, a place that isn’t necessarily hospitable – even if it seems to be on the surface – and one that is certainly difficult to leave.

First shown at the Venice Film Festival in August 1970, and subsequently at the New York Film Festival in September that year, before appearing on Italian television in October, the film made a long and circuitous journey to the United States, with stops along the way in Iran, West Germany, France, Spain, Poland and Finland before landing in New York in a limited theatrical run in January 1973. But like the film itself, The Spider’s Stratagem continued to wander the globe unhurriedly in the years that ensued, with stops in Denmark, Belgium, Sweden and Japan years apart – indeed, the film wasn’t shown in Brazil until 1980.

But then, much as the film’s narrative turns against time and memory, The Spider’s Stratagem returned to the Venice Film Festival in a remastered digital version in September 2019, shortly after the director’s death. Thus, the film itself, for all intents and purposes, exists outside of time, to be repeated again and again; it lingers in the memory, as it does on the screen, long after the last image has faded from view.

It isn’t the conclusion that matters here; it’s the trip into a world in which concepts of authentic historical recall seem absolutely beside the point. The Spider’s Stratagem creates a universe unto itself, operating by its own rules: a place you can visit, and then visit again and again, drawn back into its web, almost against your will – seduced by its lush imagery, the narrative evanescence it embraces, with the sense that you might be forced to remain here, perhaps forever.

• • •

Strategia del ragno (The Spider’s Stratagem, 1970 Italy 100 min)

Prod Co: RAI Radiotelevisione Italiana, Red Film Prod: Giovanni Bertolucci Dir: Bernardo Bertolucci Scr: Bernardo Bertolucci, Marilù Parolini, Eduardo de Gregorio Phot: Vittorio Storaro, Franco Di Giacomo Ed: Roberto Perpignani Prod. Des: Maria Paola Maino Cost: Maria Paola Maino

Cast: Giulio Brogi, Alida Valli, Pippo Campanini, Franco Giovanelli, Tino Scotti

About The Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Emeritus Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture for Rutgers University Press. Dixon’s book A Short History of Film, Third Edition (Rutgers University Press, 2018, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) is a required text in universities throughout the world. Dixon’s most recent book is Synthetic Cinema: The 21st Century Movie Machine (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). Dixon is also an experimental filmmaker, whose works have been screened at The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, Filmhuis Cavia (Amsterdam), Studio 44 (Stockholm), La lumière collective (Montréal), The BWA Katowice Museum (Poland), The National Film Theatre (UK), LA Filmforum (Los Angeles), The Jewish Museum, Millennium Film Workshop, The San Francisco Cinématheque and elsewhere.

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