Spring 1989, Volume 6.1
History As A Web Of Fictions: Plato, Borges, and Bertolucci
Sante Matteo (Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University) is presently an Associate Professor of French and Italian at Brigham Young University, where he teaches Italian language and literature and French and Italian cinema. He is the author of Textual Exile: The Reader in Sterne and Foscolo and coeditor of The Reasonable Romantic: Essays on Alessandro Manzoni. He has also published articles on Le Roman de la Rose, and the eighteenth-century Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico.
The history of cinema begins, not with Thomas Edison or the Lumiere Brothers, but with Plato, or, more precisely, with Plato's Allegory of the Cave at the beginning of Book VII of The Republic.
Socrates, while addressing the problem of education, evokes the image of a dark cave in which people sit fettered, facing a wall:
They cannot move their heads round because of the fetters, and they can only look forward, but light comes to them from fire burning behind them higher up at a distance. Between the fire and the prisoners is a road above their level, and along it imagine a low wall has been built, as puppet showmen have screens in front of their people over which they work their puppets.... See, then, bearers carrying along this wall all sorts of articles which they hold projecting above the wall, statues of men and other living things, made of stone or wood and all kinds of stuff, some of the bearers speaking and some silent.... What do you think such people would have seen of themselves and each other except their shadows, which the fire cast on the opposite wall of the cave? (312)
This situation-a group of people watching a flickering image projected from a light source behind them-foreshadows today's movie theater.
The analogy was made by the Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci in the course of a wide-ranging interview with Aldo Tassone, I while talking about the importance of lighting in his movies. As intriguing as the analogy undoubtedly is, it is also somewhat problematic because Plato's cave is actually a very negative symbol, while Bertolucci's view of cinema is very positive. The point which Socrates is trying to make through the cave allegory has to do with a lack of perception, with a kind of blindness. In his own words, his is a "parable of ... ignorance" (312). The situation in the cave is emblematic of our inability to see anything clearly: "[S]uch persons [as those dwelling in the cave] would certainly believe that there were no realities except those shadows of handmade things" (312-13).
Bertolucci, on the other hand, both in this interview and elsewhere, talks about cinema in much more appreciative terms: as something which facilitates and enhances perception and intelligence; as an aid, not an obstacle, to vision; as a medium which serves to reveal things more clearly.2
What Plato's cave and Bertolucci's notion of cinema might have in common, perhaps, is that both have to do with the projection of fictions, and both also have to do with education, a process which, as Socrates goes on to explain in Plato's dialogue, involves first distancing oneself from the projected fictions in order to be able to perceive them as mere shadows and fictions, and subsequently reaproaching them and getting involved with them again, but differently, with new awareness and purpose, and a new ability to perceive and understand life and the world. And this already takes us closer to Borges, Athos Magnani, and the spider.
But before turning our attention to them, let us recall how Socrates concludes his allegory of the cave. If the people shackled in the cave were made to turn suddenly toward the firelight behind them, they would be blinded rather than enlightened. And naturally, if they were suddenly dragged out of the cave into the sunlight, they would be too dazzled to perceive anything clearly. They would continue to think that the flickering shadows to which they were accustomed were more real than this new, oppressive realm of blinding light. Thus, Plato suggests, the philosopher must ascend out of the cave gradually:
First he would most easily look at shadows, after that image$ of mankind and the rest in water, lastly the things themselves. After this he would find it easier to survey by Might the heavens themselves and all that is in them, gazing at the light of the stars and moon, rather than by day the sun and the sun's light.... Last of all, I suppose, the sun .... (313)
However, once the philosopher has managed to see the sun he must return to the cave to educate those who are still imprisoned there. His descent back into the cave must also be gradual since his eyes which are now accustomed to the bright light of the sun would be useless if thrust suddenly into darkness again. He would stumble about as if blind. In such a case the cave dwellers would surely take him for a raving lunatic if he tried to convince them that he was there to help them see better, or to make them aware of things that were more real than those they were used to. To them he would appear much more blind and inept than they. Thus the philosopher/ instructor must develop a subtle strategy which will allow him to remove himself from the shadowy world of the cave and yet somehow retain an active involvement in it. This, as we shall see, is also the spider's strategy.
Bertolucci's movie, La strategia del ragno (The Spider's Stratagem), 1970, is a very loose adaptation of a short story by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, a four-page sketch titled "Tema del traidor y del heroe" ("Theme of the Traitor and the Hero"). In Borges's story an Irish journalist named Ryan is preparing to write a book on his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, a famous Irish hero and martyr murdered by the British a century earlier. In his research Ryan runs across some puzzling information. Kilpatrick had been killed in a theater. In one of his pockets had been found an unopened letter warning him that he would be killed, reminding Ryan of the similar circumstance in the assassination of Julius Caesar. He also finds accounts of omens similar to the ones reported before Caesar's murder. Do such parallels, he wonders, indicate a cyclical form of time as postulated by Vico and Spengler and Hegel? But then he comes across the testimony of a witness which contains words and phrases from Shakespeare's Macbeth. In addition to repeating past historical events, he wonders, does history also imitate literature?
Ryan discovers that one of the hero's companions was a certain James Alexander Nolan, a dramatist and a translator of Shakespeare into Gaelic. He also learns that shortly before Kilpatrick's assassination Nolan had written an article on Swiss Festspiele, a type of communal theater in which an entire community reenacts historical events in the most minute details and in the very places where they took place. Piecing all the evidence together, Ryan finally realizes that Kilpatrick, the leader of the anti-British conspirators and a local hero, had actually been the traitor who had betrayed his own plot to the British. Discovered, he had consequently been condemned to die by his own companions. However, he decided that his death could still serve the Irish cause if it were turned into martyrdom. To that end, he arranged for the dramatist Nolan to stage his execution in such a way as to make it appear that he was killed by the British, thus turning him from traitor into a legendary folk hero. In order to create deliberately dramatic circumstances that would remain engraved in the people's collective imagination, Nolan, in staging the execution/martyrdom of the traitor/hero, borrowed ideas and words directly from Shakespeare, the poet of the enemy.
Ryan eventually realizes that the clues he has unearthed had also been planted by Nolan so that the truth would one day be discovered. Thus Ryan's investigation and discovery of the truth are also part of Nolan's plot. Ryan, however, decides to keep the truth hidden. He will write the book as he started out to write it in the first place, celebrating Kilpatrick as an unqualified hero. He thus perpetuates both the legend and the play, and ends up suspecting that this too-his complicity in perpetuating the fiction-had been foreseen and scripted by the plotters long before. He is just another character in their play.
In Bertolucci's film a young man, Athos Magnani, Jr., arrives in Tara, a small town in Italy's lower Po Valley, where his father, a local anti-Fascist hero, was killed by the Fascists thirty years earlier. He has been summoned by his father's former mistress, Draifa, who tells him that the murderer is still at large in the town and requests that the son try to find him. The son reluctantly carries on the investigation, talking to his father's close friends and fellow antiFascist partisans. Like Borges's Ryan, he soon discovers some puzzling parallels to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Macbeth in their account of the events; and eventually he too learns that his father had been a traitor: he had informed the Fascist authorities of a plot, which he and his friends had formulated, to kill Mussolini during his visit to Tara, at a performance of Verdi's Rigoletto. Found out, the traitor himself had come up with the scheme to have his friends kill him instead at the same performance, making it look as if the Fascists had done it.
Disillusioned, the son intends to reveal this hoax at a ceremony commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the supposed martyrdom. Instead, when the morning comes he ends up delivering a tribute to the memory of his father as the dashing, brave hero. Afterwards, as he waits at the station for the train that will take him back to Milan, there are repeated announcements that it is delayed. He walks along the track looking at the rails. The grass around them gets taller as he walks along them. After a few more steps, he sees that the tracks are completely covered over with weeds and grass. No train has passed there in ages; and none will pass in the future. Athos, Jr., is stuck in Tara, caught up in some mysterious spider's web, somehow victimized by the spider's strategy of the movie's title.
Many of the insights into the filrns meanings are initially supplied by the film techniques used in the first few minutes of the movie. The very opening sequence is very revealing, and works almost exclusively on purely cinematic, non-verbal terms.3
A train pulls into a station towards the camera which is positioned right next to the tracks, in a shot reminiscent of the most famous of the Lumiere Brothers' first films of 1895. We see the name of the town, Tara. A young man in a business suit and a sailor leave the station, walking toward the camera. The camera follows the young man in the suit as he makes his way through the town, mostly through a long tracking shot moving parallel with him as he walks under a long series of porticoes. The movie will have many such travelling, tracking shots. Here it tells the viewer at the outset that this is a movie about a search. The young man and the camera occasionally pause to look at things in the town, but not always at the same time or for the same amount of time. The camera often lingers on something for a longer period of time than does the character, and then must rush to locate him again.
The first pause occurs when the young man stops to look up at a sign indicating the name of a road or piazza. The camera tilts up to it will be the father's image which will dominate as the son becomes invisible behind the fixed image of the father, the statue.
Tara, however, is also history, culture, a symbol of Italy's past. We can recognize, date, and locate the architectural style, the dialect of the old men, etc. The young man may be modem Italy looking for and exploring its past, its roots, as it searches for its present identity.
There is also an allusion to Tara, the plantation in Gone with the Wind, in the name of the town. Coupled with what appears to be a direct quote from one of the earliest Lumiere films (the train pulling into the station), it serves to suggest that this is a movie about the history and the nature of movies; it will explore how and why films are made; what they mean and how they mean. The movie, in fact, is about history, but also about film making; it's a film of history, but also a history of film.
The intertextual allusion to Tara and Gone with the Wind suggests other connotations as well: civil war, the conflict between civic duty and private interests, generational conflict, all of which are investigated in The Spider's Stratagem. Just as Gone with the Wind, this movie is also about a civil war, in this case between the Fascists and the Partisans in Italy in the 1930s. It too deals with the conflict between politics and personal passions, the conflict within man between socio-political obligations and psycho-biological needs and desires. It too investigates the transmission, loss, and transmutation of values, traditions, and myths as one generation is replaced by another, one culture by another, one econo-political system by another.
And Tara is also a stage: all those arches, something about the old men that makes it seem as if they're reciting their lines (and their lives), the signs that seem too insistent. There's something a little too homogeneous about the setting. It looks and feels theatrical. There is something unreal or fictive about it. It seems a little too perfect, too symmetrical, too uncluttered; a stage, and also a spider's web: empty, suspended in time and place; waiting to ensnare the spider's next prey.
Having the Borges original as a point of reference, we can better perceive choices made by Bertolucci which might otherwise be taken for granted: for instance, the fact that in Borges there are three characters, all male; and the relationship between the traitor and the investigator who eventually discovers the truth is a distant one: that of a long-dead great-grandfather to a great-grandson with a different last name. The fact that Bertolucci makes the relationship that of father and son, and involves a woman-the father's mistress, to whom the son also seems to be drawn-gives his story an Oedipal dimension which is missing in the original story. Borges seems to be primarily concerned with the nature of history and with the relationship between fiction and reality; and his concern is a rather abstract one. Bertolucci, in addition to these concerns, is also concerned with the relationship between father and son, more specifically a famous father and a son who has his same name and is known and identified in Tara-where he is otherwise a stranger with no identity of his own-only as his father's son.
Many viewers-most Italian viewers, at least-would probably be aware that Bernardo Bertolucci is the son of Attilio Bertolucci, a famous poet. They might even know that Bernardo himself started writing poetry at a very young age, publishing a volume of poetry at the age of twenty, In cerca di mistero (In Search of Mystery), a collection which won the prestigious Viareggio prize for first works. The problem of living in a father's shadow would be of obvious concern to such a young artist; and Bernardo Bertolucci was still in his twenties when he made the movie.5
But this added psychological dimension is not all. There is a political dimension in the film, as well, which is missing or less welldefined in Borges, who opens his story in a very general and tentative way: "The action transpires in some oppressed and stubborn country: Poland, Ireland, the Republic of Venice, some state in South America or the Balkans.... Let us say, for purposes of narration, that it was in Ireland, in 1824" (123). Borges, again, wants his to be a more abstract discourse. Bertolucci situates his discourse much closer to home: a specific region of Italy during the Fascist dictatorship, in 1936; and thirty years later, after the war and after Italy's economic boom, the so-called "Italian miracle," during which time the country had recovered from the shambles of the immediate postwar period to become a leading industrial nation and very much a consumer society (as opposed to an agricultural, contadino society, which hoards and saves, and consumes as little as possible).
The confrontation, therefore, is not only between an individual and his father figure, but between two generations of Italians, those who had lived through the Fascist years and the war, and those who had grown up amidst a definitely antiFascist rhetoric and idealogy, which in most cases meant a leftist, mostly Marxist ideology.6 But in the sixties this "inbetween" generation, as Bertoluci called it, had to come to grips with its bourgeois status, the advantages (and disadvantages) of its decidedly capitalist society, and the Fascism of their fathers. Which was the truth; which was rhetoric? What were Italians really, in their heart of hearts: Fascists, capitalists, or communists? Which was the real face; which were the masks?
And here the discourse expands to become greater than a generational conflict. And with each expansion of the discourse we take another step out of Plato's cave, which could also represent human consciousness, from its internal, psychological, personal manifestations to its external, social, public manifestations. It's all of Italian history and culture which is brought into question. What is this thing called Italy, the movie seems to ask, and what does it mean to be an Italian?
Borges had Kilpatrick killed simply in a theater, without further specification. Athos Magnani is killed at a precise point during a performance of Verdi's Rigoletto, during the famous aria, "Maledizione." In addition to frequent references to the opera in the dialogue of the characters, the film's sound track is filled with music from it, so that Rigoletto becomes a significant sub-text in the movie.
Verdi's Rigoletto was based on Victor Hugo's Le Roi s'amuse, a controversial play which was immediately withdrawn from production after its prendere in 1832 because of its anti-monarchical content. Verdi's opera, originally titled La maledizione, met with the same fate twenty years later. The composer had to change the French king into the Duke of Mantua, and the character Triboulet to Rigoletto, before the opera could get by the Austrian censors (England 238-39). Thus historically the opera carries with it strong antimonarchical, and by extension, anti-dictatorial connotations which made it the ideal context for the plotted assassination attempt on Mussolini.
Furthermore, the opera is also about plotting, deception, and betrayal, and, more specifically, about a plan to kill a duke, which is another form of the word "duce," leader (from Latin dux, ducis), the epithet applied to Mussolini: "Il Duce"; a plan which backfires on the plotter. Rigoletto has plotted to have the Duke killed, because he has seduced his daughter. He gets ensnared in his own trap, however, when his daughter is killed instead of the Duke. The fate of Athos Magnani, Sr., is similar.
But in an even more general way Giuseppe Verdi and his music are emblematic of the complex interrelations between art and history that are explored in the movie. Verdi consciously contributed to the cause of the Risorgimento, the political and cultural movement that led to the liberation and unification of Italy in 1860, through the patriotic subject matter of his operas and the intentionally popular nature of his music. Verdi's music was one of the first truly panItalian cultural products. It had widespread appeal throughout the peninsula and across class lines as well. Hence it was fully Italian in both geographical and the social sense.
On the other hand, Verdi and his music were also instrumentalized by the forces of the Risorgimento in ways which were very likely quite beyond the composer's desire or control. Arias from his operas became rallying calls for the Italian patriots in the underground, whether he had meant them to be or not. His very name became an acronym for a political statement, V.E.R.D.I., written on walls throughout Italy to signify Vittorio Emanuele Re di Italia (Victor Emanuel, King of Italy).7
In such cases, is it the artist and his art which are creating and shaping history? Or is history somehow creating the art and the artist as its instruments, in order to propagate itself and its own fictions?
The role of Tara, the town, has a similar problematic function. Visually, it is a concrete historical referent, but one which somehow undermines (or transcends) its own undeniably concrete, physical presence to signify theatricality: a stage, a mere facade.
Tara is the fictional name given to the real Renaissance city of Sabbioneta, where the movie was filmed, a town of about 5,000 inhabitants near the northern city of Parma, in the Po Valley. Much like other "ideal" Renaissance cities, such as Urbino and Pienza, most of it was built over a period of only a few years, in the sixteenth century by the local signore, or lord, in accordance with the most current notions of architecture and humanistic urban planning. The result is a strikingly unadulterated Renaissance environment, with very few heterogeneous traces of previous or subsequent styles. The ensemble offers a feeling of purity and harmony not found in most other cities which have traces of their Etruscan, Roman, or medieval origins along with traces of subsequent baroque, neoclassical, or more modern additions and modifications.
But with the harmony there is also a feeling of stasis. Tara doesn't seem to be a living environment. With its symmetrical piazzas and streets flanked by porticoes, it looks like a stage, a facade that's hiding something. And one can't help but think that Vespa siano Conzaga, the signore who had it built, probably acquired his power, his wealth, and his influence through stealth and violence, and ruthless Machiavellian machinations; as did most of the other illustrious princes and popes of the period: Medicis, Sforzas, Borgias, all of whom resorted to poisonings, massacres, and betrayals to obtain and hold power; but who also commissioned artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Bramante, and Titian to give a veneer of splendor and beauty to their palaces and cities, and to give us what is perhaps the most splendid outpouring of art in any century. As Orson Welles's Harry Lime pointed out in The Third Man, creativity and culture may very well be based on a foundation of violence and disorder: the Italian society of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was as chaotic and bloody and egotistical as any society has ever been, he notes; but it gave us Leonardo and Michelangelo and Raphael. Switzerland, on the other hand, which has always been peaceful and lawful and orderly, has given what to the world? "The cuckoo clock," he scoffs. So the Renaissance too, with its harmonious, balanced architecture and its glorious artistic and intellectual achievements, was creating a facade, a fictive artistic discourse which masked an altogether different social and moral reality. Is that what the anti-Fascist partisans and the political and cultural leaders of post-war Italy have done as well? Bondanella points out that in the film Bertolucci shows that "the origins of Italian anti-Fascism are suspiciously akin to that of the mythology produced by the assassination of Athos Magnani, Sr.... For in his film, he pictured the political mythology of the anti-Fascist Resistance not only as a noble and vital part of post-war Italian culture but also as a fiction, a comfortable illusion consciously created by man and employed to manipulate political opinion" (12-13).
So, the movie seems to ask, what does it mean to be an Italian and to walk under such Renaissance porticoes? Are Italians forced to act out a part on a stage constructed centuries ago? In a play that has already been written for them by their history, their traditions, their stereotypes? Or do they rather constantly recreate their past to suit their own needs? Tara/Italy is a stage in either case; but which is the fiction-the present which is enacted there, or the past which is evoked there?
The answer is probably both, or rather, there is no answer. The intent of the movie is to articulate the question, not to provide an answer; to make the Italian spectator aware of his precarious perch between an overwhelming past and an uncertain future, on a very tottery present.
Finally, of course, the condition of being suspended between past and present, between fiction and reality, is not just an Italian problem, but a human one. Anchoring it, as Bertolucci does, in such a concretely defined Italian context merely gives it more immediacy and impact. There are some details which Bertolucci does not change from Borges's story-namely the references to Julius Caesar and Macbeth, tragedies by English playwright Shakespeare, not by the Italian tragedian Alfieri. Because these references are not Italianized, they suggest that ultimately it's all human history which is a complex and interrelated web of fictions, not just Italian history. In this respect, however, Italy may serve as the West's attic: a place where these webs made of history and myths are a little more pervasive and more tangible. In fact, it's practically impossible to walk down any street in any Italian city or town without continually brushing against them, these interweaving traces of past civilizations, echoes of the distant voices of long-dead ancestors. The problematic relationship between past and present as reflecting and affecting each other is suggested in interesting ways in the movie. Once the son's investigation begins, the movie consists largely of flashbacks in which the companions of Athos, Sr., recount the events that took place thirty years earlier which led to his assassination. But these flashbacks are not depicted in a conventional manner. There are none of the usual cinematic dues to inform us that we're going back in time: suggestive music, dissolves, images shot through special filters to give them a different hue, a different look, etc. The flashback scenes seem to have exactly the same status as the scenes in the present. Furthermore, the same actors play in both scenes, with no effort to make them look different in the two periods. They wear no makeup to make them look either older or younger. Moreover, the same actor plays the father Athos Magnani and the son Athos, Jr. Thus, both Athos father and Athos son look as if they're about thirty years old; the friends, both in 1936 and in 1966, look as if they're around sixty; and Draifa, the mistress, looks around forty, both in the past and the present.
The implication is that these are not two distinct moments, two distinct and autonomous realities, but merely facets of the same reality, or, better yet, of the same fiction. The past is a fiction which gives meaning to the present; or the present is a fiction orchestrated in the past and perpetuated by narrative mechanisms set in motion then.
In fact there is one scene where past and present are shown in the same frame. The scene starts as a flashback showing a confrontation which Athos, Sr., hador, to be more accurate, failed to have-with an escaped circus lion. In the scene, he hides indoors, behind a window, with the camera at his shoulders, thus suggesting that he wasn't as brave as a lion, or as he liked to portray himself in public, and that he probably wouldn't be able to go through with the assassination of Mussolini, for whom the circus lion could be an appropriate symbol: not a real lion from the jungle, but a show lion, a kind of false, emasculated "king of the jungle." As the anecdote draws to a close, the camera pulls back and reveals Draifa telling the story in the present to Athos, Jr., while Athos, Sr., (played by a double with his back to the camera) is still looking out the window in the back ground. Past and present somehow contain and express each other.
The climax of this superimposition of past on present occurs dramatically in a sequence which intercuts between Athos, Sr., and Athos, Jr., running through a field. The father is running from his companions after they have discovered his betrayal; the son is running from the discovery of the betrayal and the truth about his father. In their flight they traverse the same field. The intercutting between father and son, running in the same direction and occupying the same position in the frame (only the clothes are different), accelerates until they seem to blur into the same person. Father and son have exchanged places and identity. Past and present have merged.
Instead of denouncing his father, Athos, Jr., will continue the fiction. He will take part in the festspiele or charade played by the whole town. What's more, he can't even leave anymore. When he goes to catch his train he realizes that no train comes to Tara. He will never get out. He is caught in the spider's web.
But whose web is this? Who is the spider? What exactly is its stratagem?
Bertolucci has given different responses to questions about the title of his movie. In one interview he said that it is Athos, Sr., the father, who spins the web to appropriate the son's identity. In sociocultural terms it is the past, the weight of tradition, which determines the present (Tassone 2: 73). In another interview he said that the spider was Draifa, the mistress, who was the black widow spider (Faldini 140). She had been responsible for the death of Athos, Sr., because his love for her had weakened his political and moral will, causing him to falter and betray his cause, his friends, himself. And a generation later, she also lures his son into the trap of self-questioning and self-betrayal, and into a no-win Oedipal confrontation with the father figure.
In yet another interview Bertolucci gave an even more intriguing explanation (Casetti 6). There are actually two spider's strategies involved: that of the female spider and that of the male. In some species, the female spider entices the male spider to copulate; but, after insemination, taking advantage of the male's weakened state, she pounces on him and devours him. So, Bertolucci points out, some male spiders have devised a strategy of their own. When the female is in heat, the male circles her in a state of sexual excitement, but is careful to keep a safe distance. He maintains his state of arousal and, by masturbating, manages to ejaculate into his own mouth. He then waits until he regains his strength and only then approaches the female and inseminates her-artificially, as it werewhen she no longer poses a threat. In this manner the male spider manages to participate in sexual arousal and fulfillment, assures his safety, and also procures a progeny. He keeps the potentially overwhelming and destructive passions of life at bay, and yet also manages to participate actively in that life, making a contribution to it, making a "difference." This, Bertolucci proclaims, is the real spider's strategy.
Now it's clear that this strategy of the male spider cannot be that of Ryan in the Borges story or Athos, Jr., in Bertolucci's film, who both end up getting entangled in the web despite themselves. The male spider, therefore, must be the artist himself. It is Borges and Bertolucci who are fully aware of the dangerous interplay between reality and fiction, nature and culture, animal needs and human constructs; and it is they who manage to chart a course between the two shores, between the proverbial Scylla and Charybdis, keeping both at a safe distance, but in sight. It is they, as artists, who can keep at a safe distance so as not to be engulfed and annihilated by either the reality or the fictions-by the realities that are fictions-but who also remain close enough so that they can contribute something to that reality and its fictions; so that they can make something, which is what poiesis means after all; so that they can inseminate history and culture with something that both perpetuates the old and yet somehow also creates something new; so that they too, like the spider, can procure a progeny, in their case a cultural progeny: art. And, in using the spider's strategy, they are also like Plato's philosopher who returns to the cave after s/he has seen the sun, in order to help her or his fellow humans see a little better, a little more clearly.
Finally, Bertolucci's movie tells us that this film itself-and cinema in general-is a spider's web, created by the artist as a stage for his strategy. Few other artistic mediums are as able as cinema to weave such a web between the real and the fictional, the concrete and the abstract, the personal and the social, the past and the present; and few cinemas do it as effectively and compellingly as the Italian cinema of recent years, particularly in the films of such directors as Ettore Scola, Francesco Rosi, the Taviani Brothers, and Bernardo Bertolucci.
1 "Nel mito della caverna [di Platonel per la prima volta nella storia della cultura viene prefigurato il cinema. Nella caverna stanno seduti, incatenati, i prigionieri che guardano il fondo, dando le spalle alla luce; tra loro e il fuoco-proiettore passano degli individui che portano delle statue di legno; Vombra viene proiettata sul fondo della caverna davanti agli occhi degli schiavi. Che cos'e questo se non una sala cinematografica dove si proietta un film?" (Tassone 2: 80-81). Translation: In the myth of the cave for the first time in the history of culture the cinema is prefigured. In the cave sit chained prisoners who look toward the back wall with their backs to the light; between them and the fire/projector walk individuals carrying wooden statues; the shadows are projected on the back of the cave, before the eyes of the slaves. What is this if not a movie theater where a film is being projected? (Unless otherwise indicated, translations are the author's.)
2 "Il linguaggio del cinema ~ il linguaggio della realta, diceva Pasolini. Ho imparato che le scuole sono inutili. La mia unica scuola ~ stata vedere dei film " (Tassone 2: 61). Translation: The language of the cinema is the language of reality, Pasolini used to say. I've learned that schools are useless.
My only school has been watching films.
3 David Bordwell provides an enlightening account of the movie in Narration in the Fiction Film (88-98). See also Robert Phillip Kolker's analysis of the film in his monograph, Bernardo Bertolucci (105-25), and especially Peter Bondanella's perceptive article, "Borges, Bertolucci, and the Mythology of Revolution," which deals with several of the aspects of the movie treated in this study.
4 The noun "tara~' in Italian has two meanings, both of which suggest possibilities for what the town might represent in the film. The first meaning is "tare," from the Arabic tarha, that which is removed. It refers to the amount deducted from the gross weight of a package in order to determine its net weight. Hence the tare corresponds to the weight of the packaging. In the movie the "tare" would correspond to the elaborate packaging of the father's story: the web of lies, legends, and half truths which the son has to remove to get at the truth, or the "net content"; only to find at the end that the "tare," or packaging, is all there is. Tara is all!
The second meaning of "tara" is a hereditary illness, defect, weakness, or taint. In the movie the son is tainted and eventually overwhelmed by the same frailties, uncertainties, and dilemmas which afflicted his father; just as post-war Italy has inherited many of the weaknesses and problems of Fascist Italy, and Fascist Italy from the Italy of previous generations, and so on.
"Tara" is also the third-person, singular form of the verb tarare, which means not only to tare-i.e., to determine the difference between gross and net weight-but also to determine the correspondence between the instrument of measurement and the object being measured (e.g., scale: one inch equals fifty miles). This meaning of the word would allude to the film's selfreferential quality, its exploration of its own relationship to what it is trying to represent. The film, then, is not only about the interplay between father and son, the conscious and the unconscious, past and present, reality and fiction, history and myth; but it is also about how these things are revealed, explored, and constructed in the movie, and in art in general. The film explores (tarare) how cinema, as art and as an instrument of measuring and mapping reality, is implicated in and determined by the history and the fictions it tries to depict.
5 Bertolucci tells Tassone that he began psychoanalysis shortly before making The Spider's Strategem. "Ho cominciato l'analisi all'inizio del 1969. Dopo qualche mese ho girato Strategia del ragno . . . " (2: 70); "Ho cominciato a girare Strategia pochi mesi dopo che avevo iniziato la psicoanalisi, e il film ne ~ molto influenzato" (2: 73). Translation: I began shooting Strategem a few months after I had begun psychoanalysis, and the film is greatly influenced by that fact.
He also points out the importance of the father figure in his early movies: "In tutti i miei film c'e una figura paterna, che ~ o direttamente il padre come in Strategia del ragno, o il maestro (Prima della rivoluzione), o il professore (II comformista). . . . E'la figura che ho cercato inizialmente di esorcizzare e poi capire, anche in analisi" (2: 71). Translation: In all my films there is a father figure, whether a real father as in The Spider's Strategem, or the teacher in Before the Revolution, or the professor in The Comformist. ... It's the figure which I tried initially to exorcise and later to understand, even in psychoanalysis. (See also Schadhauser 189 and 192.)
6 For an informative and perceptive discussion of the political background and implications of the film, see Bondanella's article (11-14).
7 Victor Emanuel, of the House of Savoy, was king of Piedmont and Sardegna. He waged war against the Austrians in the north, while Giuseppe Garibaldi and his volunteer "Red Shirts" liberated the south of Italy, in the struggle to establish Italian independence and unification.
Bondanella, Peter. "Borges, Bertolucci, and the Mythology of Revolution." Teaching Language Through Literature 27 (1988): 3-14.
Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1985.
Borges, Jorge Luis. "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero." Ficciones. Ed. and trans. Anthony Kerrigan. New York: Grove Press, 1962.123-27.
Casetti, Francesco. Bertolucci. 11 castoro cinema 24. Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1975.
England, Paul. Fifty Favourite Operas. New York: Harper, n.d. 238-51.
Faldini, Franca and Goffredo Fofi, eds. Il cinema italiano d'oggi, 1970-1984: Raccontato dai suoi protagonisti. Milano: Mondadori, 1984. 140-51.
Kolker, Phillip K. Bernardo Bertolucci. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.
Plato. The Republic. In Great Dialogues of Plato. Ed. E. H. Warmington. New York: Mentor, 1956.118-422.
Schadhauser, Sebastian, Gianna Mingrone, and Elias Chaluja. "Conversazione con Bertolucci." Tecnica e ideologia. Ed. Antonio Bertini. Quaderni di filmeritica 11. Rome: Bulzoni, 1980.183-97.
Tassone, Aldo. Parla il cinema italiano. 2 vols. Milan: 11 formichiere, 1980: 2: 47-82.