Reeling Backward: The Conformist (1970)
Bernardo Bertolucci's much-venerated meditation on the seductive allure of fascism and 'normalcy' is a visual masterpiece filled with characters we don't believe for a minute.
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Hoo boy. I’m probably going to get in trouble with my old film school colleagues on this one. That’s fine.
“The Conformist” is exactly the sort of movie that’s made for film school professors rather than regular people who, y’know, like movies and buy tickets to see them. It’s one of the most venerated films of all time, and frequently appears on GOAT list polls of critics and academics. It’s now out in a splendid 4K restoration from Kino Lorber.
I found it visually magnificent and emotionally hollow. In his contemporaneous review Gene Siskel called it “much more of a show than a story," and I couldn’t put it better.
The cinematography by Vittorio Storaro, considered one of the great masters, shows influences of German Expressionism like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” but with rich colors and beautiful sets and costumes. In turn its look and themes influenced many Baby Boom generation filmmakers, with Francis Ford Coppola openly citing it as an influence on the “Godfather” films, and I’d throw “The Conversation” into the mix as well.
(Coppola even hired one of the minor players in it, Gastone Moschin, to play Don Fanucci, the memorable peacocking gangster Robert De Niro kills early in “The Godfather Part II.”)
But I’ll be danged if I cared about the characters one whit, or even believed them for a second as flesh-and-blood creatures who could exist in the real world. They’re constructs, existing only to display what they’re supposed to “represent” — marionettes for the filmmaker who has Very Important Things to Say.
That starts with the leading man, Marcello Clerici, a 34-year-old recruit for the secret police in 1937 fascist Italy. As played by Jean-Louis Trintignant (actually a Frenchman), Clerici isn’t really motivated very much by politics. Like his relationship to the other great Italian institution, the Roman Catholic Church, he’s an agnostic who goes through the motions in pursuit of his own self-interest.
As the story opens he is about to get married to a lively middle-class girl, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), because he craves a life of normalcy. He seems genuinely attracted to her, even though as someone raised rich he is contemptuous of what she represents, especially her family’s faith.
Made to go to confession in order for the marriage to take place, Clerici bickers with the priest and makes clear he’s never felt remorse for the many sins he’s committed, including murder (more on that in a bit). He describes Giulia thusly:
“Mediocre. A mound of petty ideas. Full of petty ambitions. She's all bed and kitchen.”
It’s for much the same reason that he joins the OVRA (Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism), which in the movie’s depiction is comprised of other youngish men who wear natty three-piece suits and hats, tooling around in roadsters to keep tabs on critics of the Mussolini regime. Their coolness is part of the seductive allure.
Clerici got the job through the influence of his friend Italo (José Quaglio), a blind man formerly of some importance with the fascists. Italo and his friends, all also blind, throw Clerici a bridegroom party, in a scene that’s supposed to be comical but is freighted with too much elbow-in-the-ribs symbolism. Because who could be for the fascists but those unseeing of its evils?
The priest absolves Clerici anyway — no doubt because of his newfound influence as an officer of the secret police.
During his confession/argument, Clerici confides in a disturbing event when he was a boy of about 11 or 12. As seen in flashback, he was being teased by some other schoolboys who pulled down his pants, though it’s suggested he let it happen. He is picked up by a chauffeur named Lino (Pierre Clémenti), who plays with him and lures him back to his room in a dilapidated mansion under the promise of giving Clerici a Mauser pistol.
There Lino makes sexual overtures and they kiss, but young Clerici shoots up the room with the gun, including plugging Lino in the head, thinking he has killed the man. This appears to be the event that convinces Clerici he’s not normal, and sets him on the path of pursuing normalcy.
Clerici’s assignment from the OVRA is to assassinate his former professor, Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), who fled to Paris almost a decade earlier and has become an embarrassment for his vocal criticism of Italian fascism. Clerici uses his honeymoon trip as an excuse to reintroduce himself to Quadri and gain his trust.
The ruse works, but he is surprised to find Quadri married to Anna, a much younger woman played by Dominique Sanda. She is instantly suspicious and contemptuous of Clerici, and he in turn is intrigued by her resemblance to a prostitute he encountered years earlier.
Despite the intertwining of repulsion and attraction for each other, they begin an affair right under their spouses’ noses, and Clerici even offers to give up his promising new life and run away with Anna to Brazil. Anna also begins a flirtation with Giulia, possibly just to annoy Clerici, and the two women share a sensuous dance together at a crowded Parisian club.
Eventually Clerici gets around to the actual murder, alerting his operatives that Quadri will be driving to his remote lodge in the country. He tries to dissuade Anna from going too, but she ignores him and is also killed after discovering that he has betrayed them. The professor himself gets knifed multiple times by the OVRA operatives in their hats and trench coats, very much Julius Caesar style.
A coda shows us a few years later during the fall of the fascists. Clerici now has a young daughter with Giulia and seems to have achieved the staid, unremarkable life he had pursued. He is summoned by his friend Italo, concerned about them being targeted as servants of the secret police.
Walking through the war-torn ruins of Rome, they spy an older man attempting to seduce a homeless teen, and Clerici realizes this is Lino, the chauffeur he thought he’d killed. Becoming hysterical, he loudly denounces Lino as a homosexual and a fascist, and for good measure accuses him of having killed the Quadris, too — essentially projecting all his own sins onto Lino.
As a crowd of anti-fascists parades by, he for some reason denounces Italo as well, who is swept away and presumably killed. Clerici then glances askance at the young man Lino had been propositioning, with the suggestion his latent homosexuality has always been at the center of his obsession with seeming like a ‘normal’ man.
As I’ve said, Clerici isn’t a person so much as a bundle of inclinations and traumatic experiences. He doesn’t seem to really feel much of anything, an emotionless cipher who events happen to rather than acting out upon deeply held convictions. He has to be continually prodded and threatened by his subordinate, Manganiello (Moschin), to carry out his mission.
The love triangle between Clerici, Anna and Giulia is the most interesting thing about the movie. The eroticism of their scenes together stands in sharp contrast to the illogic of the plot wrapped around them. Quadri in particular seems to have no substance, agreeing to reacquaint himself with Clerici even though the younger man openly states his allegiance to the fascists.
As a piece of storytelling, “The Conformist” is a dreadful mess. It over-relies too much on its compelling imagery to substitute for genuine character-building. It wants to make a grand statement on the seductive power of conformity, even in the face of a great and obvious evil, but it rings hollow because Clerici is such an empty vessel of a figure.
I know, speaking thusly makes me an outcast amongst “serious” film critics. But in choosing whether to conform to the academics and their narrow range of acceptable opinion or being seen as a connoisseur of the lowbrow, I have no hesitation about throwing in with the motely rabble.