Based on “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” by Borges and produced for Italian television, the most remarkable thing about Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Strategem may be that it was made at all. Whether the film serves the original story, or whether doing so should matter is a subject for debate but no one would mistake the results for a “faithful” adaptation.
Start with the setting. Bertolucci relocates events from a 19th century Irish rebellion to fascist-era Italy. Given the production’s no-doubt limited resources, that change is understandable and not particularly damaging. The basic “theme” of a revolutionary hero who is really a traitor whose death is used to create a myth of heroic sacrifice is still clear. It is the changes necessitated by dramatization that are more questionable.
Borges’s typically impassive story falls just short of a knowing wink. Both he and Bertolucci embellish the action with literary and theatrical references, the conceit being that the “borrowed” riffs from Shakespeare and Verdi heighten the traitor’s martyrdom by embroidering it with rhetorical flourishes. Bertolucci dutifully includes Borges’s interpolated myths, but what works on the page does not necessarily convince on the screen. Far from enriching the action, the film’s cultural references feel more pretentious than resonant.
More fundamentally, Bertolucci must fill in the author’s barely four-page story with character details and actions to warrant attention for an hour and a half. There are no characters as such in the original story other than the “hero” Kilpatrick and his descendant Ryan, who uncovers the hoax. Others are little more than passing references that Bertolucci has to flesh out if they are to be anything better than cinematic ciphers.
And while Borges has simply to state that Ryan uncovers the truth, Bertolucci must make at least a passing attempt to show Athos Magnani the younger (Guilio Brogi), the hero’s son, doing so. Treating the mystery as a traditional detective story in which the other characters provide the information necessary to solve the puzzle runs up against the problem that no one wants a solution. Instead, Bertolucci’s basic “strategy” is to use the idiosyncrasies of the other characters to lead Magnani away from an understanding. Their colorful “characteristics” also distract the viewer from recognizing that either the material does not warrant the running time, or that the filmmakers do not know how to create a compelling puzzle.
Instead, as the characters lead Magnani down the garden path, Bertolucci glides along with them with some of his famously sleek camera moves. Where Borges uses deceptive clarity to hide his tracks, Bertolucci quite literally shows his in a questionable substitution of baroque flamboyance for coherence. The results are as lushly pleasurable, sensuous and inviting as the action is opaque. While Bertolucci’s tracking shots may be as richly expressive as Borges’s language, however, the two are more competitive than complementary.