Bernardo Bertolucci’s ‘The Spider’s Stratagem’ will be screened as part of Venice Classics

Posted on August 8, 2019


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In 1944, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges published a short story titled Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (original Spanish title: Tema del traidor y del héroe). The protagonist, Ryan, sets out to write a biography about his great-grandfather, a nationalist hero who was killed in a theatre on the eve of the Irish rebellion in 1824. Who is the assassin? Why do the details around the tragedy seem derived from literary works like Macbeth and Julius Caesar? Investigating these questions, Ryan discovers that his great-grandfather was actually a traitor. Rather than reveal his betrayal to the public and destroy their spirit, his co-conspirators decide to stage his death in a dramatic – and yes, Shakespearean – fashion that transforms the man into a myth. A line from John Ford’s similarly themed The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance comes to mind: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

In 1970, Bernardo Bertolucci adapted this Borges story into one of his most memorable films, The Spider’s Stratagem. (It was made for Italian television.) Along with The Conformist (released around the same time), this was the beginning of the director’s legendary collaboration with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who shares a credit, here, with Franco Di Giacomo). They worked together for over two decades, up to Little Buddha (1993). (The only exception, in between, was Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man, in 1981, shot by Carlo di Palma.) Visions of Light, the 1992 documentary about the art of cinematography, says: “The Conformist is almost a compendium of all of cinema language. It incorporates almost all the design, photographic, editorial techniques that had been developed, and does so in a very coherent and clear way.” What stands out in Spider’s Stratagem, though, is the sinful use of colour, right from the opening shot, where the camera pans from rows of green shrubbery to an oncoming train that’s fire-engine red to the mango-yellow station.

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