I don’t know if I can rightly call myself a fan of Bernardo Bertolucci. I’ve seen exactly two of his films, but the first, The Last Emperor (which I am frankly shocked did not make the list, for multiple reasons), absolutely blew me away, so now that the opportunity to see some more of his work has arisen, I don’t count myself too hesitant or apathetic towards it. Novecento was good, if a little overly long, but aside from that epic, The Spider’s Stratagem is my first real experience with a regular Bertolucci film. Now that it’s over, however, I’m not quite sure I was meant to get this one. Or… maybe I did. Or maybe I didn’t. I really have no definite answer here.
The story concerns a young man who returns to his hometown on request of his late father’s mistress, under the pretenses of uncovering the real story behind his father’s death, which took place before he was born. What makes the film particularly difficult is the narrative the film employs; for instance, the same actor is playing both the father and the son in the same film, in the same scenes, and often in the same shots, which seems an impossible feat, but it’s how Bertolucci pulls this off that belies his impressiveness. The narrative frequently jumps back and forth in time, without warning, and the more the film goes on the more this window between the two timelines grows more and more transparent, so that by the end of the film we can barely place half of what we’ve seen on the correct chronology. It’s a storytelling device that can extremely easily be placed in the wrong hands, but Bertolucci makes fine work of it, despite the misgivings I initially had that this would be just another muddled mess of a plot. There’s a particular epithet used in one of the Book’s paragraphs on one of Bertolucci’s films, that describes the director’s style as “hyper-baroque”. Within a few minutes of The Spider’s Stratagem, I found this descriptive highly worthwhile. Even through the rough quality of the video I saw, I could tell the film was very detailed, very spacious, and the camera constantly moving to exaggerate what motion there is within the frame. It was quite an eyeful; again, even with the poor quality of the print I viewed.
This film demands your attention; I will admit, the first half hour or so I was only giving the film some of mine, but after the film really started to pick up, I realized I would be lost in the debris if I didn’t give it my full concentration. Few films that I’ve seen from the list so far require such levels of intensity and mental acuity on the viewer’s part as this one, but it was never pushy about keeping you in line. It was very passive; either you paid attention and put forth the effort to get your reward, or you didn’t, and the film simply drives by without a care as to who it may be leaving behind or for what. This film, by the aesthetic and the mood, is clearly the work of a master, and it is a real shame that the print I saw (a videotape, and one that had apparently been run through the ringer multiple times) was as degraded as it was; otherwise, this probably would’ve been a grand slam for me. I absolutely love films that almost require multiple viewings to take in everything the film has to offer, and films that you need to spend some time working out in your head, pondering over, are some of my personal favorites (as long as there IS something to be worked out, not like anything by Bunuel or half of David Lynch’s filmography). This is definitely one I’ll have to keep an eye out for if it’s ever playing on TCM or if a better quality print comes my way; not just to experience the film in higher quality, but to experience the film once more, and try to wrap my head around it again.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10