Classic Cinema Revisited: The Conformist

The Conformist/Il Conformista (1970)
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Paramount, 111 minutes, Italian with subtitles

In my latest version of classics reconsidered, let’s take a look at Bertolucci’s The Conformist. Bertolucci makes any serious film buff’s list of influential auteurs. His directorial credits include The Last Tango in Paris (1972), The Last Emperor (1987), The Sheltering Sky (1990), and Stealing Beauty (1996). He began his career in 1962 and attracted some notice, but The Conformist made him into an internationally acclaimed figure.

As is occasionally the case with “breakthrough” films, The Conformist hasn’t weathered well. That’s especially the case if you don’t know its context. The film is based on a 1951 novel by Alberto Moravia, written just 6 years after the execution of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. You’d never know this from Fox News commentators railing about socialism, but it has always been the political right that has been more prone to forced conformity, the suppression of individualism, and police state tactics. Until the 1960s, writers and social commentators such as Sloan Wilson, C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, William Whyte, and President Dwight Eisenhower fretted about the decline of creativity, the emergence of rubber-stamp yes men, the rise of a junta-like military-industrial complex, and the squashing of individualism. Think Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Bertolucci’s The Conformist centers on Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a veritable fascist version of Miller's Willy Loman. The film opens in 1937 and closes in 1943, just days after Mussolini was deposed and jailed. (He faced the firing squad on April 28, 1945.) Clerici desires to be a player, which in 1937 meant becoming a fascist and attracting the eye of a political patron. It also meant taking care of the proper social details such as taking a wife and denouncing family and old friends with leftward leanings. Clerici thus pursues the air-headed Giula (Stefania Sandrelli) out of a desire to be properly wed, not because he even likes her. He also drifts into fascist circles and is called upon to plot the assassination of Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), a socialist professor he once admired. Along the way he also pursues Quadri’s beautiful and younger wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda).  In many ways, the film is about the rise and fall of a once-decent man. By the end, it’s a once-an-informant-always-a-lying-rat tale. After Mussolini’s fall, Clerici–now the father of a son–denounces two former friends as fascists to save his own hide. Thus a subtheme of the film is the latent fascist leanings of the middle class. Still another is the Catholic Church’s not-so-secret cooperation with fascist movements and the clerical role in suppressing non-conformity.

I includes these spoilers because the film is hard to follow for most modern viewers. Bertolucci doesn’t explain much because he assumed that his 1970 audiences would be aware of the deeper historical context. The fact that his narrative is built around rather stilted flashback sequences doesn’t help much. Toss in a little Freudianism that emerges from an attempt of an older man to seduce him as a child and much of the film jumps at us from an era whose values now seem antiquated and unfamiliar. Indeed, were I not of a certain age and a historian who has studied the things I mentioned, I would have been hard-pressed to explain why this film felt important 49 years ago.

Bertolucci shot the film in color, though its tones could be black and white. This certainly enhanced the shadowy machinations Bertolucci wished to emphasize. It was also effective in implying the sterility and latent authoritarian impulses upon which bourgeois life rests. Find the right shade and it hides sin, vulgarity, and betrayal.

Should you see The Conformist? It depends upon your purpose. It’s on the must-see list for those interested in film studies, though one might now see it as an example of how much filmmaking has advanced since Bertolucci made the film.  You can also infer how today's impressionistic and episodic storytelling owes a debt to Bertolucci. He certainly trusted that his audience was smart enough to fill in the gaps, a welcome respite from much of the mall movie dreck in which the obvious is bludgeoned so that even an illiterate can follow the story. Those looking for something thoughtless, generic, or heart thumping should steer clear. After all, Bertolucci sought to skewer conformity, not reinforce it. Overall, though, seeing The Conformist now is analogous to opening a bottle of vintage wine only to find it corked and soured.

Rob Weir

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