Having made a conscientious exploration of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970s films, I can say with confidence that I’m not impressed. More specifically, while I acknowledge that Bertolucci has a gorgeous visual style and a unique gift for capturing the sensual reality of moments, I find his storytelling consistently murky and pretentious. And even though The Spider’s Strategem lacks some of his usual distracting fetishism (i.e., erotic and scatological elements), the film epitomizes other shortcomings. Adapted from a short story about 1920s Ireland, the movie spins a complex and interesting yarn about the gulf between legacy and reality. As in the source material, a son returns to the town where his revered father was murdered, only to discover that the lore surrounding his father’s heroic demise is largely fabricated, thereby forcing the son to decide whether it’s best to reveal the facts or to leave his father’s inspirational myth intact. There’s enough thematic heft in that premise to support an entire movie, and, indeed, the narrative has shades of John Ford’s classic Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
Yet this wasn’t enough for Bertolucci. He transposed the plot to contemporary Italy, morphing the dead father into a famous anti-fascist activist. Fair enough. But then Bertolucci took a further step by integrating a trope of surrealism. Throughout The Spider’s Strategem, the protagonist has weird experiences leading him to question whether he’s dreaming or suffering at the hands of perverse conspirators. As a result, the movie starts and ends with clarity, but the middle of the film is confounding and shapeless. Bertolucci plays silly games like having the same actor play the son and the father, often having both characters appear during the same scene, ostensibly to reflect the protagonist’s tormented state of mind while he wrangles the mysteries of the past. All of this is hugely ambitious, and yet The Spider’s Strategem runs just 100 minutes, making it the shortest of Bertolucci’s major ’70s films. On one level, Bertolucci tried to accomplish too much, changing a linear narrative into something dreamlike and fractured, and on another level, he didn’t try to accomplish enough, because The Spider’s Strategem doesn’t have the epic sprawl that would have been necessary to effectively convey so many different layers of meaning.
Worse, the picture is infused with heavy symbolism that only the most devoted viewers will bother parsing, as well as tiresome speeches about the nature of fascism. It’s not as if the film is impenetrable, but it’s needlessly dense and elusive. Presented without arthouse affectations, The Spider’s Strategem could have been the equivalent of a great Hitchcock thriller, conveying powerful notions about deception, family obligations, and political machinations. As is, viewers must peer through fog to find those themes. That said, The Spider’s Strategem is greatly elevated—as are all of Bertolucci’s major ’70s films—by the extraordinary cinematography of Vittorio Storaro. Employing his signature touches of subtle Rembrant lighting and balletic camera moves, Storaro makes even the most arbitrary and indulgent of Bertolucci’s images seem considered and purposeful.
The Spider’s Strategem: FUNKY