"THE GRIM Reaper," Bernardo Bertolucci's first feature-length film, was done when the director was barely 22. At the time Bertolucci had just dropped a promising career as a poet (he is the son of poet and film critic Attilio Bertolucci) to work with Piero Pablo Pasolini on his "Accattone." In "Reaper" the fledgling director was obviously feeling out the poetic possibilities of film. It is a stark affair overgrown with lingering "poetic" shots that only hint at Bertolucci's later visual prowess.
Based on a story by Pasolini, "Reaper" is nearly schematic in the way the narrative unfolds. A prostitute has been brutally murdered and a string of suspects tell their versions of events in flashback style. The suspects come on like a refrain. Standing in a harsh "interrogation" light, they quake excessively at the questions of an absent inquisitor who seems like an otherwise mild-mannered father bent on getting to the bottom of a family squabble.
The suspects all sputter on about their innocence in a totally unrealistic way. But no matter. These scenes are really only touchdown points for the cinematic flights surrounding them. Bertolucci really gets started when he gets out into the park where the murder took place and on to a countryside blighted by crumbling postwar apartment houses and looming fascist-scale structures.
This simple verismo backdrop is given a theatrical flair. Bertolucci's sharp-edged lighting in the park sequences makes it look as though each suspect was required to light his own flashback. The big, brutish hunks of architecture are all shot like cold-hearted abstract sculpture, and the shots of the bleak landscape around are studiously protracted in proper modern poet-filmmaker fashion. It's all archly "soulless" in a postwar European way.
No doubt, the film can be tedious. But it's worth the effort because here we see Bertolucci forming some of his hallmark visual traits: the long, ever-so-slow pan; the rotating dolly shot, and the interweaving of immobile present-tense shots with lyrical flashbacks.
And, just as interesting, now-famous Bertolucci themes appear. For instance, the dance hall sequence where the killer is finally collared is a fairly mature version of an idea that would reappear in refined form in a number of later Bertolucci films, "The Spider's Stratagem" among them.
But eight years later, when Bertolucci took up "The Spider's Stratagem," the director was a fully matured artist. The dance sequence here is not only a dramatic moment but a strange romantic fiction that eerily crops up in a fascist celebration in the mid-'30s. It's like "Gone With the Wind" meets Mussolini. As happens brilliantly throughout this film, politics and personal motivations are mixed and interchanged with such frightening complexity that it's impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.
And that seems to be part of the point: Whatever your beliefs, history will intrude and make hedge bettors -- if not outright liars -- of us all. The film is based loosely on a story by Jorge Luis Borges, "Theme of the Traitor and Hero," and retains Borges' notion of myth's tendency to stumble over its own inner parts. Bertolucci's version of the story doubles and redoubles events and finally descends into an undecipherable web of unexplained motives and odd happenstance.
If ever a plot thickened, it is here. The story has Athos Magnani Jr. returning to Tara, the (fictional) village of his birth in the Po Valley, summoned by his father's mistress, Draifa. Draifa, played with cool accuracy by Alida Valli, hopes the young man can be induced to pick up the trail of the murder of his father. Trouble is, the trail is now 30 years stale. Athos Sr., an anti-fascist of romantic cut, was murdered during a performance of "Rigoletto" in 1936. The presumed assassins, the local fascist contingent, chose the exact point where the hero sings, "Ah, la maledizione" -- "Ah, the curse" -- a bit of self-parody normally foreign to standard fascist mentality.
The son soon finds that things are oddly aligned in Tara. Old men, who make up most of the populace, are evasive and aggressive. Draifa -- not so incidentally named after Dreyfus, a famous political victim of anti-Semitism at the turn of the century -- acts the historian of a great love affair while assuming a vaguely flirtatious manner with the young Antos, who looks "identical" to his father. Both father and son are played by Guilio Brogi, who subtly and convincingly ups the bravado a notch, making the elder Magnani a storybook version of the son.
As the identities of father and son continue their inevitable commingling, Bertolucci has his wonderfully poetic visuals follow suit. Flashbacks delicately meld present and past while the camera takes luxurious jaunts across lush cornfields and down darkened arbors. The characters from the present -- Draifa and Magnani's three comrades from the '30s -- never lose a year in the flashbacks. History isn't a reality, says Bertolucci, but a tale told. And he makes his point explicit when in one flashback Draifa turns and directly speaks to the young Antos in the present.
The shocker is when the film eventually reveals fascism as something more like a universal state of mind than a political stance. The heroic Magnani turns out to be the traitor, and with his comrades' help, he rigs his own death in the most dramatic way possible. The deception is all done "for the sake of the people." The young Antos quickly learns that what counts is "the consequences of the truth," not the truth itself, and finally agrees to perpetuate the ruse.
The film emits a strange kind of hard-boiled delirium, copping a place between a murder mystery and surrealist dream play. Even with its "Twilight Zone" ending, it never seems purposefully weird. It's beautiful without being excessively lyrical and theatrical without being bombastic. It may be among the great ones.