To illuminate paternal heroism is to debunk it, that’s the Freudian thesis, "il classico mistero." The rural hamlet has De Chirico’s mysterious slanting light, the young visitor (Giulio Brogli) goes one way and the slowly panning camera goes another until they meet at the town square before the effigy honoring the lad’s father. (The marble bust is given blank eyes and, later, a scarlet ascot.) Papa was a valiant anti-fascist murdered by brownshirts, Junior’s got the same name and face according to the father’s mistress (Alida Valli), a barefoot insomniac. Aged crones by the cartload and crumbling buildings (including a roofless movie house with a peeling poster of Aldrich’s The Last Sunset) abound in this village, where a trio of lumpy comrades (Pippo Campanini, Franco Giovanelli, Tino Scotti) once planned to dynamite Mussolini during a performance of Rigoletto. (The fantasy is described in a darkened tent like a memory of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and sails right into Inglourious Basterds.) Visualizing three and a half pages of Borges, Bernardo Bertolucci perversely fills in the blanks with even more blanks, erecting his labyrinth on blackouts, abrupt cuts and temporal shifts. At the bottom of the murky investigation lurks the Noble Lie, a traitor envisioning his own mythical martyrdom silhouetted against the community’s skyline. The exhumed secret is promptly reburied: "Ever open a drawer and smell where mice have nested?" Doppelgängers and phantoms, Shakespeare and Robbe-Grillet, revolt as feisty foxtrot and history as coup de théâtre. Suspended between past and present, people are forever on the verge of animalist arias, crowing like roosters or charging like goats while a German lion winds up on the banquet table. ("All a façade," declares the mistress.) Bertolucci’s companion piece to The Conformist, pointedly analytical and lushly abstruse, like a vision dreamt by the discombobulated protagonist at the weed-covered railroad where the trains no longer run on time. Cinematography by Vittorio Storaro.
--- Fernando F. Croce