Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) is another movie I’ve been meaning to watch for ages and ages, another one of the films I know I should see. Unlike a lot of the great films one should see, this is one I immediately wanted to watch again. The Conformist is certainly a great film, a beautiful, intriguing film. That’s hardly news, of course. There is much written about the film’s main character, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), the almost-accidental fascist, as well as the story’s conflation of politics and sex. Marcello’s obsession to appear “normal” leads him to volunteer to keep an eye on an old professor, Quadri (Enzo Tarascio). Labelled a subversive, Quadri has moved to Paris with his young wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda). With fascist efficiency, Marcello combines this mission with his honeymoon. On his way, however, his orders change, and he is instructed to do away with his old mentor.
Marcello’s Hamlet-like passivity, his obsession with feeling and seeming “normal,” the story’s linking of sex and politics are all worth exploring. But I’m not doing any of those things here. (Well, I thought I wasn’t going to. Turns out I did anyway.) What caught my attention is the way the film’s interest in the aesthetic coincides with fascism’s.
Marcello has no overtly political interest in fascism. During the interview with a higher-up in which he volunteers to spy on Quadri, Marcello cannot or will not (it’s not clear there is a difference for him) articulate his support for the fascist government, even when asked directly. His interlocutor attempts to ferret out Marcello’s motive in volunteering for the job, and eliminates the usual suspects of faith, money, and fear. But eliminating fear is a mistake, for it is Marcello’s consuming fear of appearing “autre,” as Bertolucci put it, that drives everything he does. And in this sense, it is, like everything for Marcello, an aesthetic motive. Not an artistic one—Marcello doesn’t have any obvious interest in art, either. But he wants to blend in with his environment. Marcello is deeply conscious of how that environment, including the people in it, look.
His fiancée/wife, Giulia, admirably played by the “fabulously pliable” Stefania Sandrelli, is an essential part of his quest for normalcy as it exists in fascist Italy. He “confesses” this to a priest before his marriage. (The marriage itself is an event totally elided in the story, interestingly. They are not yet married, and then they are on their honeymoon.) Giulia is so average, so petit bourgeois, she is “all bed and kitchen,” and for Marcello, nothing more. Even the first dress we see her in is a sartorial analogue to the fascist architecture Marcello navigates.
In his fascist aesthetic, Marcello has more in common with Giulia than he’s willing to admit. They are both artificial characters rather than authentic human beings. Marcello understands Giulia more as a sign of fascist petit bourgeois normalcy than as a person, much less a partner, particularly in her taste, as well as her intentionally vapid demeanor. On the train to Paris, Giulia dramatically confesses to Marcello that she is not a virgin. It is clearly a scene she has been planning—she feels she must come clean with Marcello, now that she can more safely do so. Her story, having been “seduced” by an older friend of the family when she was sixteen, is both tragic and banal. The “affair” continued for six years. Before she begins, she averts her gaze and says, to herself, “I don’t deserve you”; then, turning to Marcello, she cries, “I don’t deserve you!” For most of the film, Sandrelli has to play a woman who believes life is a melodrama, a woman who acts badly, rather than being authentic. Her confession seems both completely artificial and utterly sincere, as it is the only way of behaving she can imagine. Ironically, Marcello doesn’t care that she isn’t a virgin. (Of course, this is hardly surprising.)
Still on the way to Paris, Marcello stops to meet with his handlers. It is a sequence eerily similar to Giulia’s confession, and it opens with Marcello walking into a piece of art. He passes behind a large mural of a beach beyond a railing which has a small white boat propped in front, with some low buildings on the right. The camera stops on the mural, and there is a slow fade to the next shot: Marcello standing in front of a small boat in front of a railing, looking out to the sea, some low buildings on his right. As he waits in the meeting place (is it a bordello? Is it a government department?), he gazes at what looks like a giant, hand-tinted photograph of some mostly nude women in lolling in bed. The receptionist, an elderly lady dressed in layers like a gypsy barks, “This isn’t a museum! Go inside!”
Here, he is given a gun along with the new instructions to make an example of Quadri. On his way out, he is exhorted to make it “quick and decisive.” Marcello wheels around and in a pantomime of threatening someone with a gun, poses dramatically, pointing it first to the right, then to the left, then at his own temple. This gesture becomes a mild scratching at his head, as he says, “I lost my hat. Where’s my hat? Where is it?” We watch Marcello turn, exit the room, and disappear down the hall, through the narrow frame of the door.
His childhood molestation by a chauffeur and the murder of his molester Marcello believes he has committed is meant to be the wound that never heals, what makes him want to hide in fascist normalcy. It’s a troubling kernel—the film’s depiction of homosexuality seems to suggest, absurdly, that homosexuality (his own or someone else’s) somehow causes Marcello’s fascism. (This possibility is underscored, if not quite endorsed, by some of Bertloucci’s comments in the interview on the disc.) Is it the feeling of being marked, shamed by the molestation that drives Marcello? Is it the murder he thinks he’s committed? Or is Marcello really supposed to be a self-loathing gay man? Perhaps simply by leaving ambiguous this episode and its aftermath, the notion that Marcello might have been “made” gay by the molestation, or that the chauffeur saw something in Marcello as a child seems plausible, in the world of the film. More interesting is the possibility that Marcello himself mistakenly believes one or both of these explanations and that is the trauma that motivates him. (For those who’ve seen Bertolucci’s lesser, more recent films, you can see the fleshy exploitativeness encroaching in The Conformist, but here it’s integral to a real narrative.)
Fascism seems to exist in some strange just-barely alternate universe here, a mélange of government-bordello-museum. Fascists, those by choice and those by default, appear to be characters in some misplaced piece of classical theatre, so focused on their parts nothing else really exists for them. It is this aspect of the film, its own visual character and its characters’ obsession with their own appearance as characters, that is really affecting. In Pulp Fiction, the Wolf (Harvey Keitel) points out, “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.” It’s an observation that applies here. There is also some similarity between the flashback editing by Franco Arcalli and Tarantino’s liberties with narrative timelines.
In some of the extra material on the DVD, the film’s director of photography, the extraordinary Vittorio Storari, points out that the light and color shift as the action moves from Rome to Paris from a monotone, Caravaggio-like chiaroscuro to a lighter, more colorful palette. This is part of the pleasure of the film—the gray human figures dwarfed by the equally gray pragmatic, fascist architecture and then the warmth of the dance hall, its windows covered in condensation, the large room made small, filled to bursting with working class couples. Each echoes, in different ways, Plato’s story of the cave, with its movement of figures against backgrounds that diminish or illuminate them, a story which Marcello repeats to Quadri when they first meet again.
Another visual motif is the cars, all black, that accumulate: cars driving, cars stopped, cars being entered and exited. The car Marcello and his decadent mother take to visit his father in the insane asylum; the car that picks up Marcello when he is a boy, the car into which Marcello shoves Giulia so he can visit Anna alone, and of course, the car Quadri and Anna take to the countryside and the car in which Marcello and his fellow fascist, Manganiello (Gastone Mochin, Fanucci in Godfather II), follow them in order to supervise their assassinations. Cars are pivotal to the story, marking the emotional climaxes: Marcello’s childhood molestation by the chauffeur and quasi-accidental shooting of him and Marcello’s murderous passivity, watching as Anna realizes she is about to die and pounds on his car window, screaming and begging him to save her.
Marcello’s only friend seems to be the blind fascist Italo (no, it’s not subtle). But his blindness creates the opportunity for a farce of a wedding celebration (to which Marcello declines to bring Giulia). Italo may be Marcello’s only friend, but his blindness comes in handy here as well for what it shows us about Marcello’s relationships. Marcello isn’t really himself even with Italo, who can’t see him. We watch Marcello purposely wait just a moment or two too long to take Italo’s arm or assure him that he is still listening. During the celebration, the camera pans down as Marcello notices Italo has on mismatched shoes—even the consummate fascist doesn’t quite blend in. Marcello wavers between contempt and disillusionment. The celebration also provides one of the more interesting, quiet shots of the film. The two men sit on a bench in the bottom foreground of a basement room decorated with brightly colored Chinese lanterns, with street-level windows along the top of the frame, through which we can watch women’s legs pacing back and forth, waiting for someone.
The film has echoes of Jean-Pierre Melville, with Marcello as an amateurish Le Samourai-Alain Delon, and of the colors and reflections in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1969), a movie I was lucky enough to see on the big screen at San Francisco’s gorgeous Castro theater.
Sadly, it doesn’t seem Roger Ebert ever wrote a review of The Conformist, though he thought well of it. Tim Parks’s essay in The Guardian, “The Conundrum,” is the most interesting I’ve come across so far.