THE SPIDER’S STRATAGEM (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)

An elusive mystery across unresolved Oedipal terrain, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Strategia del ragno weaves a tapestry two of whose strands are Freudianism and anti-Fascism. Legend and historical myth fill in a young man’s “memory” of his father where there is no basis for firsthand memory of this father, whose shadow nevertheless becomes increasingly hard for the son to grapple with. Athos Magnani, whose father also was named Athos Magnani, plays Hamlet as he investigates the assassination, before he was born, of his heroic anti-Fascist father during the war. (A researcher, Athos is an academic version of a detective.) His father was killed, presumably by Fascists, at much the same age as Athos is now.
     Invited by his father’s mistress, Athos enters Tara, a rural village outside Parma, where a street and a public square are named after his father—tauntingly, that is, not named after him. The bust of his father in the square is a mocking mirror. (Both Athos Magnanis are played by the same actor, Giulio Brogi.) Athos is probably unconscious of his motive for this journey into his father’s past. He has come to “take down” his father, debunk him, to discover the unborrowed light of his own identity.
     Bertolucci spins a web weaving together the present and fragments of the past; in this past, characters appear as they do in the present, no younger, because Agnos’s “flashbacks” are bound to his own current experience of the people involved. These include the mistress and his father’s three anti-Fascist compatriots, with whom the father plotted the assassination of Mussolini, whose impending visit to Tara was publicized. Can the father’s heroism be doubted? In an extraordinary passage, among Bertolucci’s finest, the playing of the Fascist anthem at a public dance is boldly and baldly hijacked by Athos Sr. when he grabs an unattached woman in attendance and takes her to the dance floor; they are the only couple there, riveting all eyes (including ours), subordinating the offensive music to the spectacle of the dance. The father’s fierce allegiance to the anti-Fascist cause is manifest.
     Still, alternative narrative webs are spun, in one of which the father is treacherous, betraying the cause; is it possible that his own compatriots rather than Fascists assassinated him? In either case, his heroism, true or false, has become the unmovable stuff of legend, inadvertently shutting off the possibility of resolution of his son’s Oedipal complex. Indeed, Athos Sr. may have engineered his own martyrdom, to shore up communal anti-Fascist sentiment as replacement for the planned assassination of Mussolini that was doomed to fail, assassination for assassination, unforeseen fallout of which is his son’s crisis and predicament. But enrobing such a spiderweb of deceit and manipulation may be the son’s own: perhaps what we are “seeing” is the son’s fantasy of destroying his father, followed by the securing of his father’s martyrdom as the son’s self-inflicted punishment for his filial transgression, and once again rendering the resolution of his Oedipal crisis impossible. Fixed unalterably in his father’s past, Athos may never leave Tara, never enter a life of his own. If so, yet another spiderweb enrobes this one: Bertolucci’s. There, it is Italy, not just Athos, that suffers this Oedipal irresolution, in the nation’s case, vis-à-vis Mussolini, and Mussolini’s shadow, memory and legacy, embedded as these are in a weave of deceits, self-deceits and denials—a stunted coming-to-terms by Italy with its Fascist past.

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One thought on “THE SPIDER’S STRATAGEM (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)

  1. Nice text. Thank you for sharing.

    In retrospect, these two or three years — STRATEGIA DEL RAGNO, IL CONFORMISTA, L’ULTIMO TANGO A PARIGI — where Bertolucci’s best years… strange how things fall in place (and out). After TANGO he planned to do RED HARVEST with Brando and Nicholson — too bad it never happend.

    I have never seen a film where a man plays with / in his father’s past so convincingly. In a way, Coppola tried the same in GODFATHER, PART II (son and father at the same age, „looking at each other”) but for me the period part (DeNiro as a young Marlon) rarely is at par with the „contemporary” (Pacino’s) story.

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