In “The Spider’s Stratagem,” we find a son without a father, a son whose identity is only that of his father, and a son whose inquiry into the death of his father will only bring his father further to life. Like a parasite, the myth surrounding the father invades the son, and uses the son as a something of a host. Overtaken by the spirit of his father, Athos the younger channels a paranoia about the village. He imagines it conspiring to kill him. And unable to forge an identity separate from his father, the younger Athos descecrates his father’s grave. This Oedipal Complex- the drama of two Athoses (both played by the same actor, both given the same name)- is the central struggle of the film, as both the living protagonist and the spectator look for some way to differentiated that which refuses to be differentiated. The son wishes to have a life of his own, which is why is so driven to find out his father’s murderer. Only by discovering such a thing can the image of the father be finally laid to rest, and the younger Athos given agency over his own life.
Athos & The Village
The village, to which the son has returned after spending his entire life away from it, cannot discern a difference between the son and the father . They see the son as “Athos resurrected,” and immediately, the son is inserted into the village’s society as though he is the father. Athos’ mistress flirts unendingly with him, old family friends emerge from out of the woodwork to spend time with him, and old enemies re-apply their grudges to the younger Athos. When Athos is punched in the morning, he is taking the “sins of the father, vested on the son.” When he flees his father’s friends in the forest, it is because he is performing his father’s own betrayal of the Socialist cause.
Time has a very symbolic status in this film, as Bertolucci takes pains to compress and collapse time so that it is difficult to discern between the present and the cinematic “flashback.” Where most film’s use a cinematic sign (like a dissolve fade or a different style of cinematography) to differentiate between temporalities, Bertolucci does no such thing. He does not even change the dress or appearance of his actors. They are the same in the “present” as they are in the “past.” The fact that Athos (the son) returns to the village of Tara at the percise age when his father was murdered, after being absent in the city from the exact time of his father’s murder further demonstrates the way in which Bertolucci has initially framed the story to take on an aspect of the eternal or the unbroken. To many of the villagers, seeing the younger Athos suggests that Athos is not dead. He continues to live, and the political reality of the older Athos (socialists vs. fascists) seems to be resurrected with the arrival of the son. There is no present in this film, just a prolonged past that will not progress. There is no incursion of external reality in the film, as the man at the train station reports that the newspaper does not come at all- “sometimes they forget about us completely” she says. In the opposite direction, the statement is only more true.
Symbolic Identity: A Hero is More Useful
A highly psychological film, Bertolucci invites the spectator to think about human identity and subjectivity throughout this film. Like a Structuralist film essay, we are show the semiotic signs of people (the photographs, statues and memorials for Athos Magnani the elder) which are taken to be supreme marks of identity. They represent the transcendence of human identity for eternal mythological identity. These signs are also the conscious result of the elder Athos deciding to transform his identity from a living, person (with the flaws of betraying his cause) into a heroic symbol. As he looks over the village of Tara (already having achieved the transcendence his death will literally cement) he strikes upon the need for him to both be punished for betraying the cause, and made into a symbol for the cause. A traitor, he understands, is a dangerous thing for the socialist movement, “a hero is more useful.”
The Critique of the Political Sign
The dark truth about the fictiousness of Athos’ death reveals the emptiness of political mythology. Like an advertisement or the film itself, the production of the myth has been intentionally mis-represented to incriminate one political movement at the benefit of another. But it is all the work of the same political movement. Moreover, the death of Athos is welcomed by the very people it incriminates. So it ends up being of use to both political parties, showing the uselessness of the gesture. Athos’ death, while becoming a component of local history, is still at the manipulative needs of the popular local history. Because the fascists have been overthrown (imaginably) at the time of this film, Athos is seen a moral conscious who died for his CORRECT beliefs. But should Mussolini remained in power, the death of Athos would have been a testament to the potency of the fascist spirit in Tara.
As it stands, the film presents very little political activism, or interest in producing real political change, but instead like the Opera focuses on a performed identity of politics. This is why Athos must dance to the Internationale, and why he must be martyred to become a symbol. Because in the end, as Bertolucci suggests, political activity is just the production and manipulation of political signs- a very superficial and self-involved process.