Il Conformista (1972) (aka The Conformist)
Bernardo Bertolucci

“That’s why a normal man is a true brother, a true citizen, a true patriot… A true fascist.


The ConformistBernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) is everything that a viewer could ask for – a great story, interesting characters, stylish visuals and a purely cinematic language to convey them all. Using images that possess the judiciousness of a Tati, meaning of an Antonioni and elegance of an Ophuls, Bertolucci, not even 30 at that time, conjures up a film of both high mojo-quotient and long “shelf-life”. Evidently inspiring The Godfather series, The Conformist is the kind of film that persuades you to understand what the difference between direction and visual illustration is. The next time somebody kills you with that irritating “The book was better” act, hit them with this one. Not that The Conformist is better than its book version, but only that it makes such comparisons invalid.

Adapted from Alberto Moravia’s novel, Bertolucci’s script follows a young man, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), during the years just before the second big war. He is about to get married to a typical middle class woman, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), with “paltry, little ambitions – all bed and kitchen” in order to become a “normal” person in the society. He is also all set to be inducted into the Italian fascist party and has to carry out the assassination of an insurgent in Paris, Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), incidentally his professor during his college days. Employing ace cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s hypnotic tracking shots and handhelds and seamless, highly-stylized, tense cutting between various timelines, Bertolucci attempts to illustrate the reason for the rise of fascism by delving into the psyche of one man with a troubled past and an uncertain future.

The Conformist is a difficult film, not because its themes are heavy or its form too radical, but because the statement it proposes is a tad indigestible. Once you get over its slight simplification of ideas and reasons, it is a sweeping masterwork that you are looking at. I probably haven’t seen any film that as clearly reveal how we have all confused sexuality with morality, morality with religion, religion with politics and politics with security. The tension is palpable in almost every shot of the film. Consider the central scene of sheer cinematic awesomeness where Quadri and Clerici recollect what actually went wrong. Using staggering interplay of light and shadow, gestures and movements and room space and sound, Bertolucci develops the central motif of the film in pure film language, without ever betraying the diegesis of the film. Bertolucci’s script takes up Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which suggests that humans are all prisoners inside a dark cave unable to differentiate between real objects and the shadows that they cast on the walls, and adapts it so as to examine the dark history of the country. It is after this point that every element of the film cries out for attention and the ambivalence of the central character brought to light. Especially remarkable is the final shot of the film where, after Italo is swept away by a Rossellinian crowd, Clerici sits on a low platform near the fire, looking towards a homosexual street dweller through prison-like iron bars, still unsure of his political, sexual and moral footing.

The ConformistIn fact, all the major characters in the film tantamount to prisoners of Plato’s cave. None of them actually know what their principles actually mean or what they want from it all. Clerici is confused with both his sexual orientation and political ideology. His wife, Giulia, does not see beyond the two things that Clerici mentions. The professor seems to spend an idyllic life like that of the bourgeoisie –the very people whom he is fighting against. Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda) is none but a female counterpart of Clerici. Only that the mass she is conforming to happens to be the resistance group. The tragedy about Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) is that the people he despises is the very group he works for (“Cowards. Perverts, Jews. They are all the same. If I had my way, I’d put them all up against the wall. They should all be eliminated at birth”, he says). Even the blind Italo (José Quaglio) joins the group not because of his political leanings, but for “normalcy” and hence safety. It’s almost as if the people who oppose passive acceptance of political philosophies are themselves creating another form of fascism by unanimously scandalizing it – an idea ambiguously explored in Daldry’s The Reader (2008), where it is as much a taboo to humanely understand the people associated en masse with the Holocaust as it is to carry out the inhuman acts of fascism without questioning it.

What is brilliant is the way Bertolucci brings to surface this ambivalence of his characters. He regularly captures Clerici in the frame along with his reflection on mirrors, glass panes and windows. He places him behind wind shields and transparent surfaces and cuts in tandem between the views from both sides. He softly blurs out of focus and then into it when recording Clerici. He breaks both continuity and the 180 rule (also serving as a distancing tool) to have his characters oriented in opposite directions. At one point, Clerici even assumes two quirky firing stances – one symmetrically away from the other. Furthermore, throughout the film, Bertolucci takes Clerici through regions of light and darkness – knowledge and ignorance – thus elevating the already expressionistic tone of the film. It is as if this duality of Clerici’s is as inseparable as his features, perhaps because he never completely believes he is doing the right thing by trying to fit into pre-fabricated structures of the society. As Bertolucci rightly says in an interview:

“Marcello is really a very complex character, searching to conform because of his great, violent anti-conformism. A true conformist is someone who has no wish to change: to wish to conform is really to say that the truth is the contrary.”

As a matter of fact, Clerici is swappable with any character in the film, for he imbibes something from each of them. He behaves like Giulia in order to become one of them. He gradually finds himself moving towards Quadri’s ideologies than the fascists’ (In the layered scene at the ballroom, Bertolucci cuts to a photograph of Laurel and Hardy, indicating the frivolous and merely superficial antagonism between them). Clerici sees himself in Anna. His craving to become an acclaimed fascist comes in the form of Manganiello. One could even say that he meets his own future self in the form of his conformist father (Giuseppe Addobbati) at the asylum, whose political and (alleged) sexual contradictions are not far from Clerici’s own. But he is actually the closest to his friend Italo – insecure and scared because of a difference but unable to see beyond immediate refuge (Bertolucci once superimposes their faces, when Italo is reading a piece of text in praise of Mussolini and Goebbels). Italo even says early on in the film that they are, in a way, similar, after which we notice that he is wearing an unmatched pair of shoes. The idea of physical and ideological blindness recurs throughout in the film to reinforce the Plato allegory.

The ConformistI have always considered Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties (1975) as one of the greatest movies ever made and the best one about the Holocaust that I have seen. Watching The Conformist, one can clearly see where Wertmüller’s movie gets its inspiration from. Both films seem to complement each other thematically. While Seven Beauties examines how man’s fake principles fade into oblivion when it comes down to survival, Bertolucci’s film shows how man can assume false policies in order to survive. However, formally, both the films seem very similar in the sense that both of them exaggerate melodrama to the point of caricaturing it and consequently, derive meaning out of that absurdity. Both use oversaturated colour palettes and chromatic shifts generously to keep reminding us of the phony nature of it all. In fact, Bertolucci keeps prodding us with theatricality. As Clerici recites his father’s past, three women are performing a song in the background (Incidentally called “Who’s happier than me?” – another allusion to the prisoners of the cave). He meets Anna in a ballet class. There is even an edited scene that involves blind people dancing to a piece of music.

Bertolucci is one of the biggest New Wave fans and it shows in the host of movie references that he places in the film. It wouldn’t be a coincidence if you spot allusions to The Little Soldier (1960) or Alphaville (1965) in the film, for the director himself tells us so in an interview. Not counting the humourous nods to neo-realism and Buñuel, Bertolucci is continuously in conversation with his mentor Jean-Luc Godard throughout the film. With anecdotes about the film’s first screening and the influence of Godard on his style, he mentions here how Quadri was modeled with the French director in mind and his assassination, in a way, signified the film’s stylistic and ideological shift from Godard’s. But clearly, the relationship is one of reverence. When Clerici tells Manganiello at point: “What a strange dream I’ve had. I was blind and you took me to a Swiss clinic for an operation. And professor Quadri performed the operation. It was successful. I regained my sight and went off with his wife who had fallen in love with me”, one suspects that this is not just a token of his wavering political and sexual stance, but Bertolucci’s own gratitude towards Godard for his influence.

The ConformistHowever, Bertolucci deviates from Godard by making The Conformist a highly individual-oriented film. While Godard’s is a study of the effect of social and political structures on the individual, Bertolucci’s is the exploration of the effect the psychology of (a generalized) individual has on socio-political norms. His Clerici is a character tailor made for in-depth psychoanalysis and many facets of the film clearly remain subjective. For instance, why does he “see” the same woman thrice, at different places, in the film? Why does no one else stalking Manganiello? Does he even exist? Why does Clerici marry Giulia, even though he hates her typically bourgeois mentality? Bertolucci’s mise en scène suggests that the answers are functions of Clerici’s psyche, which is evidently affected by his childhood trauma and sexual “deviation” (Although every reading of The Conformist insists that it illustrates the role of sexual deviance in the rise of fascism, a case could be made for any kind of difference – sexual as with Clerici, physical as with Italo and even religious, as with the mystic Hanussen). This way, Bertolucci calls for a reassessment of fascism as a force that has grown bottom-up because of individual insecurities, fears, motivations and ignorance rather than a mass hysteria initiated by an arbitrary single man.

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