La strategia del ragno
(The Spider’s Strategem)

1970, Italian, 100 minutes

New Yorker Films, 1996; VHS, Out of print. [Browse/Search for a Copy]

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Screenplay by Bernardo Bertolucci, Eduardo de Gregorio & Marilù Parolini after a story by Jorge Luis Borges
Cinematography by Franco Di Giacomo and Vittorio Storaro
Music by Arnold Schönberg, Guiseppe Verdi
Produced by Giovanni Bertolucci


Giulio Brogi . . . Athos Magnani, father and son
Alida Valli . . . Draifa
Pippo Campanini . . . Gaibazzi
Franco Giovanelli . . . Rasori
Tino Scotti . . . Costa

Originally produced for Italian television, Bertolucci’s La strategia del ragno is a marvelous and extremely clever adaptation of Borges’ “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero.”
Athos Magnani comes to the sleepy Italian town of Tara, where years ago, his father – also named Athos Magnani – was assassinated by Fascists while he was attending a performance of Rigoletto. In the intervening years, the elder Magnani has become a great hero to this town filled with “old madmen.” Drawn deeper into the town’s politics and history by Draifa, his father’s mistress, and Gaibazzi, Rasori and Costa, his father’s old compatriots, the young Athos is soon entangled in a web of manipulation and deceit. Something is not what it seems, and it could cost him his life – or his sanity.

Comments & Review
In a 1936 review of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Thirty-nine Steps, Borges wrote: “...from an absolutely dull adventure story – The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan – Hitchcock has made a good film. He has invented episodes, inserted wit and mischief where the original contained only heroism. He has thrown in delightfully unsentimental erotic relief, and a thoroughly charming [new] character...”
Based on these comments, I can only assume Borges would have been delighted with Bernardo Bertolucci’s adaptation of “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero.” (I am unaware if he ever saw it – though he was blind by 1970, I imagine the film might have been explained to him!) Though the original Borges story is by no means “dull” or concerned only with “heroism,” it is nevertheless only a sketch, an idea offered to writers, and in need of “details, rectifications, tinkering.” Intended to be set in “an oppressed yet stubborn country,” Borges discards several locales before turning to Ireland for his example. Inventing a great nationalist hero named Fergus Kilpatrick, he envisions a researcher writing a book on Kilpatrick a century after his assassination in a theater. Eventually the researcher becomes disturbed by certain details of the plot – elements which seem overly contrived, contradictory, or even borrowed from literature. After a through investigation, the researcher discovers that Kilpatrick had actually betrayed his group of co-conspirators! After he privately confessed to his crime and signed his own death warrant, he and his cabal decided that he should die a hero, a martyr, thus redeeming his traitorous act by furnishing Ireland with a shining example of heroism. Cribbing ideas from Shakespeare, with the whole town to act as a theater, Kilpatrick sacrificed himself on the stage of history and was reborn into communal mythology. Realizing that the truth would only destroy this powerful illusion, the researcher decides upon a course of complicit silence, publishing a book that glorifies Kilpatrick – all the while wondering if he, too, is just playing a predestined role.
Bertolucci correctly honors the spirit of Borges’ story more than the actual details, and does so brilliantly, with a wonderful cast, music by Verdi, and gorgeous cinematography partly inspired by the paintings of René Magritte. Relocated from Ireland to postwar Italy, a sly nod to the original is granted by adopting the name of “Tara,” the mythical high seat of Irish kings. But the changes go much deeper than that, and Bertolucci successfully expands Borges’ critique of history to include a psychological exploration of identity. No longer a distant and unconnected researcher, the protagonist is now the hero’s only son – moreso than that, he is nearly identical to his father, and at the same age that his father was murdered by anti-Fascist forces. The addition of son as misplaced doppelgänger puts an interesting Freudian twist to the story, allowing the young Magnani an immediate point of entrance into the mystery, and forcing him into an identity crisis demanding a direct confrontation. Unfortunately, all his attempts at understanding are constantly thwarted. Tara is filled with the “old and the mad,” and from the first day of his arrival, the town begins to invade both his his physical and psychic space, as if just enough pressure will slough off a skin of false years and reveal him for what he truly is – a hero? A traitor? His father? At least, certainly, an Ideal rather than his a man of flesh and blood. Everyone wants something from him: the manipulative Draifa sees her lover resurrected; his father’s enemies want to expell him; his father’s compatriots appear to be grasping for some sort of understanding, or perhaps secret absolution; and even the townspeople seem to be pushing him towards some unspeakable destiny.
It is a strange and terrible town, and Bertolucci knows it, drawing its inhabitants around the young Magnani in increasingly claustrophobic spirals of need. Surreal camera shots assist in creating an restless and edgy atmosphere, making it easy to share Magnani’s irritated confusion and deepening paranoia. Characters are frequently seen doing inscrutable things just off-camera, with only their reactions coming into focus. A conversation in a salami shed is assembled in hypnotic waves; another conversation takes place through the window of a moving car. Deep shots into the town are contrasted by the flat barriers of surrounding fields, giving the impression that the town is infinitely bordered, like the rim of a wheel, with all pathways just spokes back to the hub. Even the flashbacks have a nightmare quality – while the elder Magnani is logically depicted as young as his son, all the other characters are played by the same actors as well, with no attempt to make them appear thirty years younger. A visual paradox, it suggests the stifled present exerting its horrible inertia upon the past. As the film continues, frequent slippages start to align the two Magnanis, as if the myopic vision of the town is squinting time’s binocular images into one composite. That this means the annihilation of the younger Athos Magnani is of no concern.
Bertolucci also makes the necessary substitution of the opera for the theater; in this Italian hothouse, the characters gravitate naturally toward the acts of high drama surrounding the assassination. It also allows the climax to occur inside the opera house – the perfect point of convergence for the many strands of this dramatic web.

Offsite Reviews

Edinburgh University Film Society – A positive review and summary by Spiros Gangas.

Betolucci Page – Jesse Klein reviews the film for her Bertolucci page.

Offsite Links

IMDB’s “Spider’s Strategem” Page – The Internet Movie Database’s page on La strategia del ragno.

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25 March 2004