Thirty years after the assassination of anti-fascist leader Athos Magnani, his son, Athos, Jr., returns to the small Italian town of Tara and is urged by his father's mistress, Draifa, to find out who was responsible for a crime that still remain a mystery.
Having forced his hero in Partner to confront his alter ego, Bernardo Bertolucci nigh-on simultaneously joined the Communist Party and entered psychoanalysis. A period of intense political and personal introspection followed and its ramifications can be detected in this masterly adaptation of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges's short story, `Theme of the Traitor and the Hero', which was produced by the Italian television station, RAI.
Transposing the original setting from revolutionary Ireland to the provincial Italian town of Tara (whose name had links to both Ireland and Gone With the Wind), Bertolucci sought to show how the past repeated itself by staging a series of repetitions that were enacted by the same cast in the same roles, costumes and locations. However, this was more than a mere dramaturgic gimmick, as The Spider's Stratagem was less a film about politics than a study of a father's imprint upon the psyche of his son. Thus, Freud triumphed over Marx in Bertolucci's approach and he even toned down the techniques borrowed from Jean-Luc Godard that had contributed to Partner's misfiring. However, Bertolucci still used Vittorio Storaro's mobile camera and the atmospheric Sabbioneta locations to suggest Athos, Jr's fraught state of mind, as he revisited the places that had staged his father's own drama. Thus, he attends a performance of Verdi's Rigoletto in the same opera house where Athos, Sr. had been murdered during the aria `Maledizione' and flees the tavern when he had gone to plan the attempt on Mussolini's life. Yet, even though he thinks he has come to understand his father's legacy, Athos, Jr. is left unsure whether he was a coward or the architect of his own mythologising demise. All that's clear, as he waits on the train station and notices that the track has become overgrown, is that he is as trapped in the web that has been spun around Athos, Sr's reputation as Draifa (Alida Valli in a role echoing The Third Man) and the residents of a town that seems to have stood still since 1936.
Bertolucci's superb dramatic thriller packs a powerful punch.