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How to Construct a Labyrinth: Bertolucci, Borges, and Magritte in The Spider’s Stratagem (1970)

To be not a man, but the projection of another man’s dream—what incomparable humiliation, what vertigo!
- Jorge Luis Borges, “The Circular Ruins”

In 1970 Bernardo Bertolucci presented The Spider’s Stratagem (Strategia del ragno), along with The Conformist (Il conformista) and thus entered a decisive era in his cinematic career that was marked by those two renowned, complex, and sophisticated films. This was the year Bertolucci finally managed to overcome Jean-Luc Godard’s heavy influence and introduced a personal cinematic style, a political cinema of the operatic nature, which, in the years that followed, served his artistic and ideological endeavors in a distinct and identifiable way.

Based on Jorge Luis Borges’ short novel “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” (Tema del traidor y del héroe), The Spider’s Stratagem simultaneously confirmed Bertolucci’s loving relationship with literature. He was, after all, the son of the noted Italian poet and writer, Attilio Bertolucci, and he himself had already published, in 1962, a prize-winning book of poetry entitled In cerca del mistero (In search of mystery) (Tonetti 8). The conformist also was an adaptation, of Alberto Moravia’s titular novel, whereas before that, Bertolucci had appropriated elements from Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double, in his films Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution, 1964) and Partner (1968), correspondingly. However, there is something particularly intriguing in the way Bertolucci understands Borges’ philosophical backdrop in The Spider’s Stratagem. Kolker explains that, in comparison to Bertolucci’s other literary sources, the “relationship between the Borges fiction and The Spider’s Stratagem operates in an entirely different manner” in the sense that, in this case, Bertolucci does not use the “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” as simple “stimuli” for characters and events; on the contrary, he “uses the concepts that Borges’ narrative suggest” thus ending up with a work of intricate intertextual nature (109). The film is otherwise considered Borges’ “best-received high-cultural translation to the screen” (Williamson 92), while Kolker characterizes it “intellectually the most complex of his [Bertolucci’s] films, politically the most intriguing” (68).1

Bertolucci grasps in his film what is in Borges’ work a continuous investigation of the essence of time, history, and being. But how can Borges’ intellectual concepts be conveyed into the tangible universe of the filmic image? This essay will show the way the Italian auteur succeeds into constructing a cinematic labyrinth – a dominant symbol in Borges’ fiction − that interweaves reality with dreams through the appropriation of René Magritte’s paintings and the radical use of editing.

The Spider’s Stratagem takes place in the Italian town of Tara2 during the 1970s and the 1930s; two different periods of time that are intricately intertwined in the film. The protagonist, Athos Magnani (Giulio Brogi), arrives at Tara by train, following an invitation by Draifa (Alida Valli), the “official” mistress of his father who was murdered on June 15, 1936, by the fascists. Father and son share the same name and, such is their likeness that, it is forever being pointed out by the locals (both roles are carried out by Brogi).3 During his visit, Athos Jr. seeks to discover his father’s assassins. What he realizes, though, by investigating, is that his heroic ancestor, who had been plotting with his leftist comrades to assassinate Mussolini during a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto, is actually a traitor who staged his theatrical death claiming that “even a dead traitor is damaging. A hero is more useful.” Hence, the film’s central theme is history’s ambiguity, the intertwining of reality, myth, and performance, and, by extension, the construction of collective memory. As the past is unraveled through a series of flashbacks, these matters are investigated within the gradual construction of an unreliable dreamworld that progressively traps Athos Jr. in a labyrinth placed between present and past. And this is not some imaginary world, but a meticulously constructed cinematic universe, that owes its origins to Borges’ thought.

In Borges’ “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” Ryan is the narrator and the great-grandson of the enigmatically murdered hero of the Irish Revolution Fergus Kilpatrick. Ryan investigates the circumstances that led to his ancestor’s death in order to write a biography. But as he unravels unknown aspects of the case, time seems “to repeat or combine events from distant places, distant ages” (Borges 144). Just before the revelation that Kilpatrick is, in reality, a traitor who, just like Athos’ father, became a hero by way of a theatrical demise, Ryan suspects “some secret shape of time, a pattern of repeating lines” (144). Proof of a cyclical pattern builds up. A warning note is found on dead Kilpatrick’s body just like the one Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar received prior to his assassination. On the eve of Kilpatrick’s death, rumors that the circular tower of Kilgarvan had burned are reminiscent of the dream Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, had in which the tower, dedicated to her husband by the Senate, was destroyed. Additionally, on the day of his death, Kilpatrick speaks with a beggar who repeats words from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Thus, arises the “inconceivable” deduction “that history should copy literature” (144). The mysterious phenomenon is illuminated only when it is revealed that Nolan, Kilpatrick’s oldest comrade, who had once translated Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar into Gaelic and studied “the Swiss Festspiele” (144) − theatrical representations of historic events, − had additionally undertaken to reveal the traitor in their midst. Soon enough, it is proven that this traitor is no other than Kilpatrick himself. However, Nolan suggests that Kilpatrick’s execution be staged so as not to jeopardize the revolt. Without having enough time to arrange the details of this “performance,” Nolan is obliged to turn to Shakespeare and appropriate scenes from his plays. This is how “history should copy literature” and how Borges’ short novel becomes “an extraordinarily complex narrative game in which each narration frames another, and is finally framed by it” (Boldy 111).

In “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” Borges plans a spatiotemporal labyrinth where events can be forever repeated without ever being the same. And this is not the first time the Argentinian author interweaves the idea of the labyrinth with the theme of the circular motion of time.4 In the “Plot,” Caesar’s assassination is repeated nineteen centuries later when, “in the southern part of the province of Buenos Aires, a gaucho is set upon by other gauchos” (Borges 307). Likewise, in “In Memoriam JFK” the bullet of JFK’s assassination reappears in time taking the blame for the killings of numerous other historical figures. Among them is the president of Uruguay (Idiarte Borda), Lincoln, Gustave Adolph, Christ, even Socrates (326). Naturally, the complexity of Borges’ perpetual circles reaches a climax in stories such as “The Circular Ruins” and “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In “The Circular Ruins,” a magician creates a son using dreams as material only to find out that “he, too, was but appearance, that another man was dreaming him” (100). The riddles continue in “The Garden of Forking Paths” where the spy Tsun learns of the infinite book/labyrinth of his ancestor, Tsui Pen, which records the “countless futures” (127) a character could follow, before he finally realizes that he, too, is living only one of the multiple narrative universes he appears in.

Under the prism of a never-ending circular movement, Borges’ perpetual time is forcing events in a mise-en-abyme (see also, H. L. Dubnick 69-81). Author, characters, and readers, thus, are constantly confronted by a riddle whose supposed solution only manages to reveal new, unseen dimensions of the puzzle and each discovery is only “the beginning of other discoveries ad infinitum” (Navarro 396) in a vast labyrinth with endless forks, that actually conceals a model of the universe (Navarro 402).5 In the end, dreams, labyrinths, and books work together in order to muddle the borders between fiction and reality and to raise questions concerning the formation of the self, the validity of perception, the nature of knowledge, the movement of time and the pattern of history. These pursuits are found in “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” in the exchange “between diegesis and mimesis, between history and poetry, between verity and version” (de Behar 113). And the fact that “history should copy literature,” that history can be submitted to a form of aestheticization, seems to be the one that principally fascinates Bertolucci. Though he himself acknowledges little of the radical influence Borges has on his film:

I decided to keep only the structure of Borges’ story. My film centers on a young man who goes to Emilia, invited there by a mysterious woman named Draifa to investigate the murder of his father, an antifascist hero who had been killed in the theater during a performance of Rigoletto. The mechanism is very similar to that used by Borges but I’m not so focused in his very Borgesian reflection on the cyclical nature of things. The theme of the film is this sort of voyage into the realm of the dead. (Gerard et al. 52)

It is peculiar how a filmmaker like Bertolucci, who is accustomed to analyzing his intertextual references and the complex manner within which he often appropriates them, in this instance simplifies Borges’ presence in his work. Kolker asserts this paradox when he writes:

Clearly Bertolucci follows the ‘events’ of this six-page fiction rather closely (more closely than his other literary sources, even Moravia’s The Comformist), significantly changing the relationship between the hero-traitor and the person who investigates his death to one of father and son,6 and also changing the time, placing it in a very concrete, too ‘real’ historical setting, Italy’s fascist period. More important, he follows Borges’ concept very closely, examining the ‘labyrinths even more inextricable and heterogenous’ that form about the act and the attempt to unravel it. (Kolker 110)

As we shall see, by appropriating Magritte’s paintings in a perplexed editing system, Bertolucci constructs a labyrinthine cinematic space-time ― a plexus of reality and dream, ― that allows past and present to affect one another, in a theatrical view of history. And, thus, he truly “follows Borges’ concept very closely.”

From its opening credits, The Spider’s Stratagem affirms the importance painting has in its construction. Fifteen different paintings of the Italian Naïve artist Antonio Ligabue (1899-1965) alternate showing animals battling against each other: a gigantic spider tightened around a tiger (La Vedova Nera), a fox with a bird in its mouth (Volpe in Fuga), another tiger displaying its teeth to a snake (Tigre Assalita dal Serpente), and so forth. According to Bertolucci, Ligabue’s paintings were selected as the artist lived and worked only forty kilometers from where the filming took place in the Po Valley, so naturally, the distinct features of his landscapes correspond with those of the film (Gerard et al. 52-53). But Bertolucci is also interested in themes of Ligabue’s work such as the lion; he even intended to name the film The Flight of the Lion through the Poplar Trees (Gerard et al. 53).

Following the opening credits, comes the first sequence of the film. A red train stops at some provincial railway station. A bag is hurled from one of its windows. A man, Athos Jr., gets off followed by another man dressed as a sailor. Both begin walking until the sailor stops, swings round military-style and sits on a bench. A voice is heard: “Tara.” This is how the protagonist, the town, and the odd atmosphere in which all events will unravel are introduced to the audience. Athos Jr. continues walking and soon finds himself in Tara. First, he stands before a column and reads back to front: “ATHOS MAGNANI STREET.”7 Then, he asks for directions to a hotel, but he is given contradictory answers. He comes across the “ATHOS MAGNANI YOUTH SOCIETY OF CULTURE” and later on, in some square, sees a man’s bust with the inscription: “ATHOS MAGNANI, A HERO BASELY MURDERED BY FASCIST BULLETS.” Thus, it is immediately made known that Athos Magnani Sr. was a left-wing militant, murdered by fascists, and that Tara, the town that idolizes him, is a desolated place, frozen in time. Part of that impression emerges from the way Tara revokes Giorgio De Chirico’s (1888-1978) paintings (see Figure 1).8

How to Construct a Labyrinth: Bertolucci, Borges, and Magritte in The Spider’s Stratagem (1970)
Despoina Poulou, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1.

De Chirico, who was significantly influenced by his Italian origins and Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought, was respected by the Surrealists, and admired especially for his “haunted” urban landscapes of his “metaphysical era” (1909-1919). In them, one typically meets roman architectural style buildings, arched arcades, dirt roads, elongated shadows, frozen figures ― all placed in the geometry of a warped perspective. In such an enigmatic world of stillness time seems eternal and the familiar is reintroduced as mythological. Bertolucci transfuses into Tara a similar metaphysical quality, and while creating a narrative time-space that is neither dream nor reality, he immediately evokes Borges’ uncertainty as to what is true and what is an illusion. Of course, should one search for a painter that brings The Spider’s Stratagem close to Borges’ puzzling universe, that should be Magritte. About Magritte’s determining presence in the film, Bertolucci says:

on the set I talked a lot with Vittorio Storaro, my director of photography, about the two visual reference points of the film: Magritte and the naïve painters. For example, we shot the night scenes, as you remember, in a coloration that is quite unusual for the cinema, that is completely in azure. That is, they are nights in which you can see everything, […]. Also in Magritte’s work there is the same type of night “eclairage.” There’s a painting by Magritte, called “The Empire of Light,” in which you can see a rectangular, almost horizontal house, with a tree, and two lighted street lamps just like in the scene at the train station when Athos the son is getting ready to leave at the end of the film. (Gerard et al. 53)

Magritte’s The Empire of Light (L’Empire des lumières) is a series of seventeen paintings created from 1949 to 1964. Each one depicts an urban street at night, a lamppost, one or several dwellings with some of their windows illuminated and trees all placed under an azure sky filled with white clouds. Magritte himself explains: “The landscape suggests night and the sky suggests day. This evocation of night and day seems to me to be endowed with the power to delight and surprise us. I call that power—poetry” (Alden 90).

Even though Bertolucci mentions the scene at the train station as strongly related to The Empire of Light, there are several more instances in The Spider’s Stratagem that, more or less clearly, recall Magritte’s enigmatic landscape: (1) after having a drink in a bar, Athos Jr. is found in the blue night eating watermelon in front of a warehouse illuminated by two lampposts (see Figure 2), (2) in a flashback, while talking with his three friends, Athos Sr. insists it’s daylight yet everything is drowned in night blue; then the camera moves to the left revealing a dwelling in front of which a bonfire revokes Magritte’s lampposts, (3) in a scene filled again with blue hues, Athos Jr. is observing what his father’s three friends are saying to Becaccia ― Athos Sr.’s worst enemy ― seated at a round table with a lamp placed at the center, (4) soon after, Draifa offers a lamp to Athos Jr., who is standing, in the dark of the night, in front of the illuminated windows of her house. Naturally, the scene that bares the greatest resemblance to Magritte’s paintings is the one where Athos Jr., in a (fruitless) attempt to leave Tara, goes to the train station; we will be returning to the scene for a careful reading. For the time being let us explore why Bertolucci’s opening to Magritte is not just an aesthetic choice but proof of his essential understanding of Borges. Kolker observes that:

In many respects, Borges’ fiction and Magritte’s paintings share a common ground, a common idea about the artifice of language and its codes (of written language in the first instance, visual in the second); both are concerned with the epistemology and cognition of their different means of expression. (Kolker 109)

How to Construct a Labyrinth: Bertolucci, Borges, and Magritte in The Spider’s Stratagem (1970)
Despoina Poulou, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2.

We already referred to examples of Borges’ quest to re-evaluate our understanding of the world by putting into doubt the certainties of our perception and by revealing realities that are frightfully hidden behind the obvious. Magritte is concerned with the same subject matters; in his perhaps most famous work, The Son of Man (Le Fils de l’homme, 1964), appears a man in a black coat and a bowler hat that has large part of his face concealed by a green apple. The painting, without being the only one (see also, Le Principe du plaisir [1937], L’Homme au chapeau melon [1964] and La Grande guerre [1964]), reveals the artist’s desire to explore what lies behind that which can be seen. Two earlier paintings, titled The Human Condition (La Condition humaine, 1933-1935), suggest another approach to the subject. Both depict a window, in front of which stands a painting on an easel, showing exactly the part of the landscape hidden from view. By applying the devices “painting within a painting” and “window painting,” both paintings examine the boundaries between reality and representation and become a “meta-linguistic metaphor for the relationship of art to reality” (R. Dubnick 418).

Borges as well as Magritte constantly seek to create riddles. Nevertheless, as much to the author as to the artist, an answer to the riddles means only the introduction of new riddles and the revelation of a labyrinthian experience ruled by uncertainty.9 This applies to The Spider’s Stratagem, too, as Bertolucci appropriates Magritte’s “optical devices” signifying a deep understanding of Borges’ short novel. Let us take for example the first meeting between Athos Jr. and Draifa. After explaining the reasons she asked him to visit Tara, Draifa − with an unexpected and quite dramatic appearance behind a closed door − invites Athos Jr. for lunch. The camera follows her as she moves towards the table behind her and in front of a window with a view to the garden. The two of them sit opposite each other and continue their conversation. The window between them resembles a painting and contributes to the construction of a “frame within a frame” composition, reminding Magritte’s “painting within a painting” technique. Suddenly, a child with his face hidden behind a straw hat looks like he is penetrating the window − which proves to be a door − to serve watermelon. We start to suspect that, indeed, “[m]agic has its place in Tara” (Tonetti 86).

As the scene unravels, Draifa starts talking about the investigation-parody conducted by the police, after Athos Sr.’s death. The camera focuses on her face while she explains: “The police found an anonymous letter in his pocket, unopened. It said that he’d die if he entered the theatre.” “Like Caesar, before entering the Senate”, Athos Jr. adds. Draifa agrees and continues: “A gypsy, a few days before the crime, read death in his hand.” “Macbeth, the witches’ prediction,” replies Athos Jr. while Draifa shows her admiration: “You must have studied a lot.” Just like in “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” in The Spider’s Stratagem the death of the ancestor is linked to Julius Caesar and Macbeth, even though Bertolucci adapted elements of Borges’ short novel to serve his focus on the way the political myth of the Resistance was constructed to maintain an anti-fascist climate during postwar Italy. Matteo is right to conclude that these details are preserved by Bertolucci and are not “Italianized,” so as to “suggest that ultimately it’s all human history which is a complex and interrelated web of fictions, not just Italian history.” Of course, if Borges achieves that through the interweaving of history and literature, Bertolucci accomplishes it with the assistance of the arts.

In the scene already discussed, the contrast between the foreground and the background – between the dark interior where Draifa and Athos Jr. are seated and the bright, natural world seen through the window/door – makes the setting where the action takes place seem without depth and artificial, just like a theatrical stage. This impression is reinforced when subsequently the characters are shown in closeups, both having as background a painted wall depicting a field (see Figure 3). The wall functions again as a kind of “window,” a tableau with theatrical connotations that can only make what is heard about Athos Sr.’s death as fiction and not as irrefutable facts. Naturally, The Spider’s Stratagem is mainly “theatrisized” through the musical presence of Verdi. Athos Sr. is planning the assassination of Mussolini during a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto, the moment the aria “La Maledizione” is heard, but in the end, he is the one murdered during the performance. Through Verdi, Bertolucci manages to entwine reality with performance and history with myth. Nonetheless, insinuations about the theatrical dimension of life in Tara are formulated in the film as a whole, with most prominent feature “the curtain technique”, which achieves the sudden revelation of new dimensions of cinematic space. In some way, it is about a variation of Magritte’s ploy “painting within a painting” that allows Bertolucci to encase, just like Borges, levels of the reality that compete against each other.

How to Construct a Labyrinth: Bertolucci, Borges, and Magritte in The Spider’s Stratagem (1970)
Despoina Poulou, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3.

A typical example of this can be found in the scene where Athos Jr. meets one more of his father’s friends, Costa, the proprietor of the movie theatre. Costa talks to him about the party’s plan to murder Mussolini, while through a flashback, the proposal of Athos Sr. to use an explosive device instead of a gun is also revealed. In the past, the friends shout enthusiastically: “Bang, bang” and so does the overwhelmed Costa, in the present, who can now be seen alongside Athos Jr. walking in the premises of the outdoor cinema. “And then?,” asks Athos Jr. Costa explains that a fascist discovered the bomb intended for Mussolini and the latter cancelled his visit. “So Magnani died instead of Mussolini”, adds Athos Jr. and marks this incident as “a startling coincidence.” “My father,” he continues, “was killed during Rigoletto, the way Mussolini was to be killed. No one knew how Mussolini was to be killed. Only you three; four, in fact [counting Draifa].” Costa changes the subject: “The screen will be ruined if it rains; will you help me to raise it?” The two of them begin rolling up the white sheet and behind it a green garden is gradually revealed. “One thing is clear...,” Athos Jr. comments, “whoever fired that shot in that theatre, with this music, made a hero of Athos Magnani.” Athos Jr.’s crucial realization, along with the simultaneous lifting of the screen which reveals a new space, a new reality, sets into doubt again the story about Athos Sr.’s death by associating it with a theatrical production. This time, though, it is not just the historic events’ credibility that is being undermined but also of the film’s itself. Bertolucci explains:

In The Spider’s Stratagem … the big screen of the open-air movie house … reveals the countryside hidden behind it when it is lifted. So many banalities could be said about a screen, which, when it is lifted shows the same reality as the one the camera had projected and imprinted on it until then (as cited in Kolker 114).

Multiple levels of reality − present-past, artificial-natural, cinematic-theatrical − penetrate one another to achieve the construction of a labyrinth which in The Spider’s Stratagem is completed through the utilization of editing. A kind of editing that defies the rules of narrative continuity and breaks open the time-space continuum of Tara, proving that this is a place entrapped between reality and dream. These kinds of discontinuities can be found throughout the film. For example, when Athos Jr. visits Draifa for the first time, the woman talks about his father and, in every shot, she appears standing in a different location. Even Athos Sr.’s portrait, hanging on the wall, refuses to submit to the laws of narrative continuity and changes a little every time it is shown in a shot. Something similar happens in Athos Jr.’s next meeting with Draifa in the house. The woman is talking while seen in different shots arranging different bouquets of flowers in different areas of the house. Another type of discontinuity is found in the scene where Athos Jr. and Gaibazzi, the “salami taster” meet in the meat warehouse. During their discussion, black stills interrupt their meeting and conceal(?) minutes or even seconds of the encounter. The film is full of such contradictions, like the fact that Athos Sr.’s friends, now and in the past, retain the same age. But perhaps the most indicative scene to detect this is the one where Athos Jr., in an attempt to leave Tara, goes to the train station; by no accident, this is also the scene Bertolucci mentions as most influenced by Magritte’s The Empire of Light

In the first shot of the scene, Athos Jr. is seen in the train station, at dusk, holding a suitcase, walking towards the far end of the frame, turning left and then vanishing behind the station building. The camera moves to the left, until it comes across an open window [window A] and stops. From window A, one can observe an empty room with a spherical lamp hanging from its ceiling, and, across it, a second open window with green shutters [window B] that reveals a Magrittian view – an azure sky and some trees submerged into darkness. The two windows compose a “frame within a frame, within a frame” synthesis that penetrates the building from back to front (see Figure 4). Suddenly, Athos Jr. appears (without his suitcase) from the left side of window B walking right and then left, before he finally enters the building from window B. Just like in the lunch scene between him and Draifa, here again “trickery” is used, and a door is mistakenly taken for a window. Now inside the building, Athos Jr. pauses and, facing the audience, looks through window A, as if he is searching for something. He then walks back to the position where he was at the beginning of the scene, passes in front of the building, stands in front of window A and looks upwards and to the left. A following (subjective?) shot shows a lamp among foliage. Then, it is back to the building. But now it is suddenly nighttime, and window A has been turned into a door, while a table can be seen inside the room. The camera moves away from the building and on to the left to show the railroad tracks the moment the sun sets. The following long shot is that of the train station building, with its windows lighted underneath a blue sky. The sailor from the opening sequence reappears running and shouting: “Bye, Athos.”

How to Construct a Labyrinth: Bertolucci, Borges, and Magritte in The Spider’s Stratagem (1970)
Despoina Poulou, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4.

Firstly, it is obvious that this is a scene that does not respect time continuity: it is dusk, then black night, then dusk again. Furthermore, Bertolucci creates a disorienting time-space by violating basic editing rules like the directorial match. Bordwell rightly infers that “conventional cues can become ambiguous if they are shaken out of redundant relations with one another” (Bordwell 92). When Athos Jr. appears at the beginning of the scene to be walking towards the left side of the frame and reappears behind window B moving from left to right, he seems to have been magically repositioned while the viewers were not looking. Geographical continuity is further undermined the moment Athos Jr. stands in front of window A and what follows is a shot of a lamp and, afterwards a shot of the station that looks absolutely changed. Suddenly it is night and not dusk, what seemed like a window now is transformed into a door and a table is visible in the middle of the, previously empty, room. The unjustifiable change, of course, is due to reverse cut. The camera “jumps” from one side of the building to the other, and, instead of being in front of window A, it is suddenly found in front of window B, without informing the viewers about the sudden change. Thus comes the perfecting of the Borges’ labyrinth; even Athos Jr. seems lost in this spatiotemporal maze, as he is pacing back and forth to find an exit.

In conclusion, The Spider’s Stratagem is a world of labyrinthine temporality that calls into question any historical certainty. Through his profound understanding of Borges’ thought and on the basis of an intertextual and intermedial creative process, Bertolucci succeeds into creating a film abstract enough to challenge history’s narrations without ever losing its connection to its very specific historical context.  Bertolucci introduces elements of Magritte’s artistic uniqueness into his work in a way that leads to an unexpected visualization of Borges’ conception of the world as repetition. Kline is right to conclude that “Magritte’s presence in the film serves notice that cinema is hardly a copy or repetition of some preexistent reality but an adaptation of it on its own terms” (80). It is no coincidence that, shortly before the end of the film, Athos Jr. is called to talk to the citizens of Tara about his father and conceals everything he has discovered, as he wants his own descendants to keep living in the same trap of secrets, frustrations, and complicities.

This research is co-financed by Greece and the European Union (European Social Fund- ESF) through the Operational Programme “Human Resources Development, Education and Lifelong Learning” in the context of the project “Reinforcement of Postdoctoral Researchers - 2nd Cycle” (MIS-5033021), implemented by the State Scholarships Foundation (IKY).


1  Bolongaro is right to note that, with The Spider’s Stratagem, “Bertolucci achieves in pursuing three main objectives: the exploration of the expressive possibilities of cinema as a specific medium; the commitment to examining the possible contribution of cinema to the struggle for political change; and the effort to develop a cinematic language that could reach a wide audience” (Bolongaro 71-72).

2  When asked if “Tara is the unconscious”, Bertolucci replies: “Yes, perhaps Tara is the unconscious, but Tara is first and foremost the place Scarlet O’Hara returns to after she says, ‘Tomorrow will be another day.’ Tara is thus the promised land of Gone with the Wind” (Gerard et al. 54). According to Matteo “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 Spiders 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 1930’s” (Matteo). In fact, the film was shot in northern Italy, in cities such as Mantua and Sabbioneta.

3  At the hotel, the owner welcomes Athos Jr., commenting in surprise: “Identical. Just look, identical”. Afterwards, Draifa describes the moment she saw Athos Jr.’s photo in a newspaper: “I was stunned. The image of Athos [Sr.]. Athos [Sr.] resurrected”.

4  On the vital connection between labyrinth and circular time in Borges, see also: “The theme of the labyrinth is interrelated with at least three other fundamental Borgesian themes: (1) chance is destiny in the sense that it is impossible to escape the past and one’s ancestry; (2) time is infinite in the sense of being circular, as a repetition of similar but not identical events, as we have learned from the ‘Library;’ (3) the Library is the universe” (Bossart 30-31).

5  Borges’ broader understanding of the labyrinth is clearly revealed in “The Library of Babel”: Ιn a universe “which others call the Library” (112) men are hoping to find “a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books” (116), so as to decrypt the chaotic architecture of the labyrinthian space. While the Library is a metaphor for the universe, the book becomes a metaphor for God. This book, of course, that contains all the books in the Library but cannot contain itself recalls Russell’s paradox (on a parallel reading of Borges’ work and Bertrand Russell’s thought, see Bloch 143-147 and Daravinga 115-120) and makes God a “theoretical possibility” (Flynn 129-130). However, there is no reason for despair, because “if the universe is a labyrinth, it has a center. For Borges, that suggests a coherent cosmos, although an inexplicable one” (Frisch 16).

6  In a way, Bertolucci is justified to talk that way, insofar as he locates the premise of the film elsewhere: “It seems to me that in general it’s a film about the contradictions of demystification — of the myth of the father, of course, and also of the mother at different moments.” (Gerard et al. 54)

7  See also: “The right-to-left pan underscores the reverse temporal movement by which the son goes back to revisit the memory of the father and the function that Tara plays in connecting these two temporalities” (Rigolleto 48).

8  Bertolucci’s reference to de Chirico is acknowledged by most of his scholars. Indicatively, we note Kolker (1985, 107-108) and Tonetti (80), as well as Dalle Vacche in whose work, The Body in the Mirror: Shapes of History in Italian Cinema, one can find scattered comments. Tonetti, referring to Bertolucci’s relationship with the painter, goes as far as to claim that the song “about a little girl taken to a dance by her father”, heard during the opening sequence while Athos Jr. is looking for the hotel, is a “vocal interpretation” of de Chirico’s painting Melancholy and Mystery of a Street (Misterio e malincolia di una strada, 1914).

9  Because of the labyrinth, Borges is often associated with the sketches of M. C. Escher. See also Parker.

Works Cited

Alden, Todd. The Essential René Magritte. New York: The Wonderland Press, 1999.

Bloch, William Goldbloom. The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Block de Behar, Lisa. Borges. The Passion of an Endless Quotation. Translated by William Egginton. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

Boldy, Steven. A Companion to Jorge Luis Borges. London: Tamesis, 2009.

Bolongaro, Eugenio. “Why Truth Matters: Ideology and Ethics in Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem.” Italian Culture, vol. 23, no. 1, 2005, pp. 71-96.

Bordwell, David. “Temporal Stratagems and Spoils.” Narration in the Fiction Film, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, pp. 88-98.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions. Translated by Andrew Hurley, New York: Viking, 1998.

Bossart, W. H. Borges and Philosophy: Self, Time and Metaphysics. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.

Dalle Vacche, Angela. The Body in the Mirror: Shapes of History in Italian Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992. 

Daravinga, Despina. “Russell’s Paradox, the Cretans who Lie, and Zeno of Elea.” Ensembles and Magmas: A Castoriadian Reading of the Detective Tales of Edgar Allan Poe and Jorge Luis Borges. 2008. Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Phd dissertation, pp. 115-120.

Dubnick, Heather L. “‘Mirrors and Fatherhood’: Doubling, Mise en Abîme, and the Uncanny in the Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges.” Romance Notes, vol. 44, no. 1, 2003, pp. 69-81.

Dubnick, Randa. “Visible Poetry: Metaphor and Metonymy in the Paintings of René Magritte.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 21, no. 3, 1980, pp. 407-419.

Frisch, Mark. You Might Be Able to Get There from Here: Reconsidering Borges and the Postmodern. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2004.

Gerard, Fabien S., T. Jefferson Kline, and Bruce Sklarew (eds.). Bernardo Bertolucci: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Kline, T. Jefferson. Bertolucci’s Dream Loom: A Psychoanalytic Study of Cinema. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

Kolker, Robert Phillip. Bernardo Bertolucci. London: BFI Publishing, 1985.

Levy, Silvano. Surrealism: Surrealist Visuality. New York, New York University Press, 1997.

Matteo, Sante. “History as a Web of Fictions: Plato, Borges, and Bertolucci.” Weber Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, 1989, https://www.weber.edu/weberjournal/Journal_Archives/Archive_A/Vol_6-1/SMatteoEss.html.

Navarro, Carlos. “The Endlessness in Borges’ Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 19, no. 3, special issue of Jorge Luis Borges, 1973, pp. 395-405.

Parker, Allen M. “Drawing Borges: A Two-Part Invention on the Labyrinths of Jorge Luis Borges and M. C. Escher.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, vol. 55, no. 2, 2001, pp. 11-23. 

Rigoletto, Sergio. “Contesting National Memory: Male Dilemmas and Oedipal.” Masculinity and Italian Cinema: Sexual Politics, Social Conflict and Male Crisis in the 1970s. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014, pp. 45-70.

Swanson, Philip. “Borges and popular culture.” The Cambridge Companion to Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Edwin Williamson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp. 81-95.