THE CONFORMIST (1970)
FALL OF A FASCISTA
When one reflects upon it, 1970 was quite a year. Bernardo Bertolucci turned 30 years old. Earlier that year he released THE SPIDER’S STRATEGEM (1970), a dramatic study about the roots of Fascism; within one village in. It was not very well received –but Bertolucci was not finished with his study of Fascism. So he dug deeper, and he adapted fellow Italian Alberto Moravia’s bestseller THE CONFORMIST, a novel that weighed in at a hefty 375 pages (enough for three films), into a lean screenplay; where he endeavored to juggle the events and characters from the book into something “cinematic”, a bolder vision. Then he filmed THE CONFORMIST (1970) and presented to a world in chaos.
America was in the seventh year of an undeclared “war” in a country called, a volatile peninsula in Southeast Asia . 1970 dawned at nearly the three quarter point of the twentieth century, and one needs to examine that year, like an insect under a lens, to fully understand and appreciate the atmosphere that Bernardo Bertolucci was influenced by.
Let’s see, ah yes 1970 –Richard Millhouse Nixon was then President of these. I was attending the . I had been out of the military for two years. I was just accepted and had entered a three year stint at the U of W, the Professional Actor’s Training Program. I was learning Elizabethan dances, fencing and stage fighting, practicing yoga, speech, mask work, mime, and acrobatics. I was going to set the theatrical world on fire. I was going to become a film actor who still “preferred” theatre. I was full of blue mud, but didn’t know it at the time. I was in my 20’s, lean, energetic, a bit of a womanizer, a dyed in the wool movie buff –and a part-time peace activist; a long-time liberal who thought of himself as an intellectual. With the fluttering of the decades, most of these “attributes” have matured, dissipated, or have completely disappeared.
In 1970 politically, several things occurred. A jury found that the “Chicago Seven” were not guilty of inciting a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In 1970 the Democrats swept the U.S. Congressional mid-term elections. President Nixon began the systematic withdrawal of American troops from South. There was the “Mai Lai Massacre”, and 14 U.S. Army officers were charged with suppressing information related to the incident, and Lt. William Calley was tried for the crime. (In 1975, there was an Emmy-winning television film broadcast called JUDGEMENT: THE COURT MARTIAL OF LT. WILLIAM CALLEY, with Tony Musante as Calley, also starring Richard Basehart, Harrison Ford, Bo Hopkins, Ben Piazza, and the venerable G.D.Spradlin. It was “hosted” by Stanley Kramer.) The U.S. Congress gave President Nixon the authority to sell arms to Israel –who was involved in a “conflict” with Palestinian armed forces that were pouring out of Jordan . U.S. forces invaded , and massive demonstrations occurred on college campuses. During a large demonstration at Kent StAte , in , four students were killed by National Guardsmen. 100,000 people gathered in . to protest the War. So Nixon first pulled our troops out of (more or less), and then asked Congress to provide funds to bolster the dictator left in power by us.
President Nixon in 1970 also signed a measure lowering the voting age to 18. So longer could his critics mutter, “Yeah, the kid is old enough to die infor his country after being conscripted, but he is still not considered old enough to vote, or even have a beer.” Nixon signed the “Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act”, banning cigarette advertisement on television. A huge anti-war rally was held at , and it was attended by Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland.
Other events caught your eye on the “News at Six” as well. The North Tower of thewas topped out at 1,368 feet, making it the “tallest building in the world”. Divorce was finally legalized in , and the pope was furious. The AMC Gremlin and the Ford Pinto were introduced to the car-buying public. Yukio Mishima, Japanese author and militarist, and some of his zealous followers forcibly took over the Ichigaya military headquarters –taking a General hostage. When Mishima’s impassioned ultra right-wing speeches failed to sway public opinion, he committed “seppuku”. Expo 70 opened up in . The Concorde made its first supersonic flight. The Apollo 13 Mission had to abort, with James Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert returning to earth early –barely making it; as most of us cinema historians discovered within the plotlines of Ron Howard’s wonderful film, APOLLO 13 (1995), with Tom Hanks as Lovell.
In 1970 within the fascinating world of “Entertainment”, 600,000 people gathered at the Isle of Wight Rock Festival off the coast of England to watch Jimi Hendrix, Roger Daltry with THE WHO, Jim Morrison with THE DOORS,, Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Emerson-Lake & Palmer, and Ian Anderson with JETHRO TULL. The very first episode of the soap opera classic, ALL MY CHILDREN was broadcast. My lovely wife, Melva, has been a faithful fan and viewer of this sudser for over 35 years. Paul McCartney held a press conference and officially announced that THE BEATLES had “disbanded”, which was a nice play on words, and then McCartney announced that fans needed to rush right out and purchase his first solo album. Elvis Presley began his first concert tour since 1958. The rock band, QUEEN, was formed with the phenomenal Freddie Mercury, and it found immediate success. (Its unique sound found its way into the soundtrack of FLASH GORDON (1980), blew my socks off in HIGHLANDER (1986), and gave us some great moments in A KNIGHT’S TALE (2001).
As in every year, Death made the headlines in 1970 too. Janis Joplin died of an “apparent” heroin overdose in a hotel room in; going in person to ask God to buy her a Mercedes Benz. Joining her in that landmark transition that waits for us all were Jimi Hendrix, Bertrand Russell, Erle Stanley Gardner, Gypsy Rose Lee, Inger Stevens (a sad suicide), Billie Burke (gone to search for Edith Hamilton and the others of OZ that had preceded her), Brian Piccolo (without ever knowing his life would make two TV films, the first one BRIAN’S SONG (1971), with James Caan as Piccolo, and BRIAN’S SONG (2001), with Sean Maher as Piccolo), Frances Farmer (another sad case of Hollywood excess and neglect), Vince Lombardi, Edward Everett Horton (leaving a vacuum on FRACTURED FAIRY TALES), and Charles De Gaulle.
Quietly and without fanfare, the departed were efficiently replaced by a healthy birthrate. There were no blaring of media trumpets because newborns like River Phoenix, Matt Damon, Uma Thurman, M.Night Shamalan, Kevin Smith, Jennifer Connelly, Joseph Fiennes, Mariah Carey, Queen Latifah, Barry Pepper, Rick Schroder, Lara Flynn Boyle, Minnie Driver, Heather Graham, and Skeet Ulrich had not made their mark yet; or at least let us say that their ability to defecate deliciously in their diapers constituted their primary contribution to the entire world beyond their cribs.
So our designated director, Bernardo Bertolucci was very aware of these events and these people, as he wrote and then filmed THE CONFORMIST (1970). Ironically he was completely unaware that citizens who do not remember history, who never studied the principles of Fascism, are doomed to inhabit a country, a planet, that will step backwards, and begin to reinstitute, legalize, reinstate, and then relive Fascism. I mean it does not take a genius IQ to realize that the Fascist state of affairs portrayed in Moravia’s novel, and Bertolucci’s movie resonate with our “modern world”, as our fearless puppet Commander in Chief is very busy rattling his borrowed saber, while sending more of our innocent young people into harm’s way within the lethal cauldron of War in and .
Returning recently from airports after a Christmas holiday trip, I can assure you that the complete loss of dignity and personal freedom that I “experienced” at the hands of several over zealous security employees was infuriating, and both degrading and dehumanizing. Gosh, if only I were not disabled, and I had not requested a chair so that I could take my shoes off for their scanning –then I never would have been dragged off to an adjacent room, where I was delighted to converse with three other security employees who had some very personal questions to pose to me, and I never would have had to stand with my arms spread like a criminal, while they patted down my body cavities and ran their wands about me like angry hornets. I asked them repeatedly if this was how they treated all the disabled, but they never responded to my angry inquiries. They just kept calling for more employees to stand in the room with me. Somehow I failed to see the humor in this situation. If this was the government version of “Christmas Cheer”, then perhaps I should have screamed humbug and stayed home. Twenty minutes later I was ejected back into the human throng with shoes in hand to search for my wife. At that moment I was ready for revolution, ready for a change of the guard.
Peering back over the several years since September 11, 2001 , I am still amazed at how efficiently the President’s Men have set up their own secret police, and somehow managed to stay in power midst two election scandals and blatant manipulation of the political system; or what’s left of it. Actually all one has to do is glance back at the primary postulates and propositions of Fascism to begin to appreciate the tawdry parallels.
Dr. Lawrence Brit, a political scientist, made up a fascinating list of these “fascist characteristics”. It filled me with trepidation and concern the first time I read this list.
- There will be powerful and continuing nationalism, employing constant use of patriotic slogans, symbols, songs, and flags.
- A disdain for the recognition of human rights –because of course, “national security” outweighs human rights –so they can be ignored.
- Create and use “enemies” as scapegoats.
- There needs to be supremacy of the Military.
- There will be rampant sexism –including rigid gender roles, and anti-gay legislation.
- There must be control of the Mass Media.
- There will be an obsession with national security –driven by the politics of fear.
- Religion and Government will become intertwined –especially in the rhetoric employed by its leader.
- Corporate power is protected, as industrial and business aristocracies put government leaders in power –and keep them there.
- The power of the Labor Movement will be soundly suppressed –because it represents a real threat to Fascism.
- Powerful disdain for all intellectuals and the Arts, coupled to hostility toward higher education; along with censorship of the Arts –and a flat refusal to support the Arts.
- An obsession with crime and punishment.
- Rampant cronyism and corruption in government.
- Capped by fraudulent elections.
I believe that today we are a Democracy in peril –in fear of its own demise. Our leaders are staunch conservatives, who are intolerant of any sort of diversity. Racial profiling and bigotry allows them to blame others for their ills and the shortcomings of their policies. They keep the public in a constant state of “alert”, plagued by fear in order to successfully suppress all forms of dissent. They feel free to enact new laws and use those “laws” to enforce “order” –and strongly maintain their power base. They establish figures of authority who feel that they are above the law (enter Dick Chaney).
As a people we are continuously bombarded by their diverse appeals to messianic fundamentalist religion –nurturing complete intolerance of the other religions and beliefs held sacred within the “rest of the world”. They have worshipped Mars, the god of war, and called forth the war dogs, re-establishing the NEW CRUSADES, setting up an adversarial relationship with the teeming billions who follow the dictates of Islam –creating stone cold Jahadists out of innocent school children. 2007 has dawned and all this fervor has been cranked up a notch by our wild-eyed Texan, still being a front man for his petroleum posse; not even trying anymore to disguise the thick puppet strings of their murderous manipulation.
So returning for a time to 1970, we can more accurately determine the clear parallels and salient symbols of warning set in motion by Bertolucci in THE CONFORMIST. When I attended this film that year, I was also considering all the other cinematic entries in the flow of culture and “entertainment”. I believe that Bernardo Bertulucci was also very aware of the parameters he skirted, and the competition he both conjured and dealt with. Vittorio De Sica released THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS (1970), with Dominique Sanda; the story of a wealthy Jewish family induring the approaching days of WWII. Jean-Luc Godard was “way out” there artistically, releasing his performance art film, BRITISH SOUNDS (1970), reducing film plot to a Marxist zero. Francois Trauffaut gave us L’ENFANT SAVVAGE (THE WILD CHILD) (1970). Michelangelo Antonioni literally wasted our time with his limp and pretentious ZABRISKIE POINT (1970). David Lean gave us the sublime RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970). Robert Altman released his first big “hit”, M.A.S.H. (1970), putting his miraculous career into motion. Steven Spielberg was still working as a young director in television, directing several episodes of NIGHT GALLERY in 1970. John Cassavetes released HUSBANDS (1970). Martin Scorsese released STREET SCENES (1970), with Harvey Keitel, the young director still two years away from his landmark film, BOXCAR BERTHA (1972), with Barbara Hershey’s breasts, and David Carradine’s vacant stare. Joseph Losey released FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE (1970), with Robert Shaw, a strange existential political dramatic thriller. Great American director Sidney Lumet had a lean year, releasing THE LAST OF THE MOBILE HOT SHOTS (1970). In addition, working off the incredible success of Dennis Hopper’s EASY RIDER (1969), the film’s three stars were given industry “carte blanche” to direct their own personal movie projects; and what incredible celluloid prodigy was whelped by their artistic labors. Dennis Hopper was working on his film, THE LAST MOVIE (1971). Peter Fonda was working on his film, THE HIRED HAND (1971). Jack Nicholson was working on his movie, DRIVE, HE SAID (1971).
So it came to pass that despite the box office competition and the lukewarm response to his film, THE SPIDER’S STRATEGEM (1970), Bernardo Bertolucci, full of the naïve confidence of youth –managed to pull together a sterling cast, and he created a flawed masterpiece, THE CONFORMIST (1970). Bertolucci, who has became a powerful and gifted force in films, planted the seeds of his success within the framework of this fascinating fledgling effort. A little confusingly initially, the film comes at us during the opening of the third act of the plot, and it spends much of its length in flashback, filling in the pieces. But there are no wasted moments. The movie is tighter than a new Rolex. Every bit of the dialogue and imagery is mandatory to insure closure by the end credits. I think he must have storyboarded every shot. Many scenes open in tableau, or freeze into temporary tableau –and then leap or stagger into action. In this film, he began to explore the vivid vistas of sensuality and sexuality which two short years later would blossom into THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972), show up oddly in LA LUNA(1979), exploring incest as well, sprinkle THE LAST EMPORER (1987), be tossed about tragically in THE SHELTERING SKY (1990), be used in a mock-LOLITA manner in STEALING BEAUTY (1996), only to spill out recently all over the lens and screen with his latest effort, THE DREAMERS (2003).
Bertolucci with THE CONFORMIST, constructed a fabulous film that over the decades since its release, it has dragged itself along, showing its stamina, and emerging as a real “classic”. The film is complex, forced into moments of monochrome, lyrical yet brutal, beautiful yet ugly, passive yet passionate, peevish yet shocking –shallow one moment, swirling listlessly like a leaf on a tepid puddle, and then turning bloody and lethal the next moment; full of madness, repressed homosexuality, religious hypocrisy, petty politicos, blind people, assassins, prudes, whores, statues, marble edifices, patriots and victims, jesters and gigolos; long with never ending string of colorful characters who are all being cajoled, serviced, seduced, abused, shamed, and murdered.
This is a tidy tale ofof the 1930-40’s, when the Axis coalition ground its heels onto the neck of Judaism –and anyone else who stood up to them, or disagreed or displeased them; as the bald bulldog Benito Mussolini strutted stiffly in the ebon shadow of Adolph Hitler, while he dreamed of a new Roman Empire. During those stress-filled days, ordinary citizens in either joined the brown shirt Fascists, or resisted them. They certainly could not be ignored. Deviant party members infiltrated schools and factories, and were placed in local political posts. The individuals who “resisted” had to be hunted down and brought to bay, or just “eliminated” –often by the very ones who “accepted” Fascism, embracing it as normalcy.
One of the few criticisms I had of this film was the almost complete absence of the trappings of WWII. Did the film open up, in its third act, in pre-war Paris ? Jewish characters, like the professor Quadri, had fled to Paris , and they seemed “safe” there; pre-Vichy. So the Nazis could not have blitzkrieged across France yet. There did not seem to be any specificity of time for most of the film; beyond the fashions and cars of the late 30’s. Yes,has joined in the Axis, and obviously the Fascists are in power –but what was the timeline? Even in the Italian scenes, when Clerici visited government officials, or traveled about –one rarely saw soldiers, no marching battalions, and no loitering dogfaces. One hardly even saw any uniforms, not even swarthy constabulary. Rather we met with the bourgeois in their tailored suits, within their cavernous offices. It just seemed odd to me.
The film looked right though in all other respects, mostly thanks to the production design by Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who later collaborated with Bertolucci on THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972), THE LAST EMPORER (1987), and THE SHELTERING SKY (1990). His set designs were probably the best thing about Peter Bogdanovich’s DAISY MILLER (1974). He also worked his wonders with the sets on Paul Schrader’s AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980), and his CAT PEOPLE (1982). He was also involved in those sumptuous sets on Brian De Palma’s SCARFACE (1983).
Of course the most striking thing about the “look” of THE CONFORMIST was its cinematography, completed by master lenser, Vittorio Storaro. He too collaborated with Bertolucci on THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS, THE LAST EMPORER, and LITTLE BUDDHA (1993). It has been said that Francis Ford Coppola screened THE CONFORMIST several times before he hired Storaro to shoot APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). He also spun cinemagic for director Warren Beatty on REDS (1981), and did marvelous work on Donner’s LADYHAWKE (1985). He worked with Coppola again on TUCKER (1988), and Beatty again on DICK TRACY (1990).
Some of my favorite Storaro cinematic moments in THE CONFORMIST (1970) were the lone car speeding through the gray mist of a white winter landscape in pursuit –the scene in Guila’s home, during the first flashback, where the very linear straight shadows from the Venetian blinds complimented the glass and chrome metal furniture, bending the dark shadow rays of light to parallel the diagonal stripes on Guila’s dress; being aware but enjoying the supreme manipulation, with the result being very 30’s Art Deco, setting the mood with trapezoidal, zigzagged bending of black and white light –several grand tableaus setting up scenes with massive columns and huge blocks of marble and other white rock –like when the tiny figure of Clerici entered the foyer in order to meet the Minister, to be accepted as a special agent; or when Clerici and his addled drug-addicted nymphomaniac mother visited what remained of his once proud father in the mental institution, lonely figures nearly lost in row upon row of marble and white rock, dwarfed by 40 foot white walls; a clever shot of interesting angles and camera sweeps (they had not yet invented Steadi-Cam for cameras, so great dramatic shots like that one at ground level midst blowing leaves that seemed the size of Citreons, tracking up to Clerici and his mother getting out of their limousine, must have presented interesting technical challenges) –or those odd-angled askance lensing of street scenes where agent Manganiello’s car was following Clerici as a pedestrian –or the numerous choices of huge Rococo building edges and ominous wrought-iron tall fences pitched up around crumbling musty estates –and the “piece de résistance”, those money shots near the end of act three, done deep in the forest along an icy mountain road, with deep snow covering the rough ground, piling up to the base bark of white birch groves, with the sun streaming through dozens of deciduous denizens, cutting sharp black through the gray white both in the foreground and background, piercing the mist, reminiscent of those terrific shots of the Russian forests in David Lean’s DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965), brimming with solitude and silence, suddenly punctuated with screams, swearing, the sounds of small blades popping into flesh, embracing almost comic assassination, preceding chilled brutal murder.
The stirring musical score, bleating with brass, jumping with jazz, bonding with big bands, whipping up several frenzies with strings, and then pounding us with jack-booted percussion, was done by the very accomplished composer Georges Delerue. He has written 347 movie scores, beginning professionally in 1950 when he was only 20 years old. Before THE CONFORMIST, he wrote scores for SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (1960), JULE et JIM (1962), THAT MAN FROM RIO (1964), A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966), and WOMEN IN LOVE (1969). After 1970 he wrote scores for DAY OF THE DOLPHINS (1973), JULIA (1977), SALVADOR (1986),BLUES (1988), and STEEL MAGNOLIAS (1989).
The screenplay, as mentioned, was based on the best-selling novel THE CONFORMIST by Alberto Moravia. Its protagonist, Marcello Clerici, was much more developed than it became in Bertolucci’s film. Moravia spent a lot of time explaining and illustrating Marcello’s sad childhood; the incredibly cruel and strident posturing of his father, Clerici being an only child, his mother’s errant manner and many affairs married to her drug abuse and dependence –and very importantly the details of a very lengthy affair with Lino, the maverick fey chauffeur; who was not the Clerici’s family driver –that was the Japanese gentleman who serviced his twitchy mother.
From the Novel: “It was certainly a play, this thing he was enacting with Lino –but if it was a play, why was he experiencing such a strong and complicated feeling; this mix of vanity, loathing, humiliation, cruelty and spite?”
I think these novelistic facts helped to explain the man that Clerici would grow up to become. The homosexuality within the film was always masked and less pronounced; until the last few minutes of the last act. Bertolucci let the homosexuality just be five layers deep, pounded into secrecy from his family, his father, and society; another sad tale of misplaced Eros and the rage that mantled it.
During December of 2006, THE CONFORMIST was released in DVD, and like fine wine it has aged well. Hordes of cinemaphiles cheered as the original cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, meticulously oversaw the complete remastering of the film; now emerging is sparkling colors, in widescreen, with some deleted scenes restored, in the original Italian and French. The abominable snowboy VHS version of the film was extant for 35 years, and heretofore the only release of the film on video that has ever been offered. It limped onto screens freshly castrated and impotent; panned and scanned, dubbed, cropped and snipped into a mishmash of inarticulate meanderings and nonsensical settings. It was like going to an art museum and being shown a Rembrandt painting; but all we are allowed to see is a wedge out of the center of the painting, and we are told that this was “the whole experience of viewing this painting.” What inexorable nonsense. Viewing the VHS abortive rendition of this film always left me with the taste of sour milk or rotted meat in my mouth. But, alas and eureka, this new DVD version of film can thrill us anew with full-framed cinematography, complete set pieces, restored color and rejuvenated clarity; we are once again privy to the symbolistic motifs, the music of the original languages, drenching us in the visceral dramatic power of the piece.
Bertolucci posed the question, “What would a sexually ambivilant successful bachelor inin the late 30’s do in order to achieve “normalcy”? God knows we all have peer pressure to content with. Our younger generation with their oversized pants pulled down to their adolescent knees, their ball caps on backwards, their “wiggerspeak” rhetoric and vacuous vernacular, their rap non-music blasting obscenely from ten speakers within their vehicles, shaking the ground and rattling the windows for 100 yards, begging for deafness and dumbness and disorganization, with their ultra-thin cell phones that take video, snap photos, make movies, text message, surf the internet, and play music as well as placing phone calls, and their i-pods plugged into their blistered ears 24/7 cranking out hundreds of “hits” –they certainly are aware of the angst and pressures to be considered “normal”.
From the Novel: “Marcello was vexed –the two women’s conviction that he was a “good” man was not new to him, but it always disconcerted him deeply. What did this goodness consist of? And was he really good? Or was that quality that Guila and her mother called goodness actually his abnormality, that is, his detachment; his distance from ordinary life. After all normal men were not good, he thought, because normality must always be paid for at a higher price, whether consciously or not, by various but always negative complicities, by insensitivity, stupidity, cowardice, even criminality.”
From the film, where Clerici is confessing to the priest:
Marcello: I’m going to build a life that’s normal. I’m marrying a petty bourgeoise.
Confessor: Then she must be a fine girl.
Guilia: Speak out. Go ahead.
Marcello: (sotte voche) Mediocre. A mound of petty ideas. Full of petty ambitions. She is all bed and kitchen.
Jean-Louis Trintignant, a brilliant and busy actor, has appeared in 134 films since 1956. In 1956 he had a celebrated affair with Brigitte Bardot. When she dumped him, he joined the military and served in. Returning to his career mid-60’s, his biggest hit was A MAN AND A WOMAN (1966). He grew up around car racing so his part was a natural for him. He was 40 years old when he made THE CONFORMIST (1970), just after he completed work on MY NIGHT AT MAUD’S (1969). I read where he was the first actor considered by Bertolucci for the lead in LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972), but he turned it down because he objected to the numerous nude scenes. Today he prefers work in Theatre to that in films.
Trintignant once said, “The best actors in the world are those who feel the most and show the least.”
As Marcello Clerici he gave us a carefully modulated performance, at once both comic and tragic –a lost individual who would aspire for a normal life, but never would achieve it.
From the film: The scene in the Radio Station where he converses with his “special” friend, Italo (Jose Quaglio) who is an intellectual gay mouthpiece for the Axis, and a loyal Fascist; a political commentator and fey philosopher who deeply bought into the Nazi dream of white supremacy, and the Fascist dream ofreborn. This scene was so effective, in its portrayal of friendship with Clerici, it made Marcello’s betrayal of him at the film’s conclusion more tragic; touching and disturbing.
Italo: A normal man? For me, a normal man is one who turns his head to a beautiful woman’s bottom. The point is not just to turn your head. There are five or six reasons. And he is glad to find people who are like him, his equal. That’s why he likes crowded beaches, football, the bar downtown…
Marcello: At Piazza Venice .
Italo: He likes people similar to himself and does not trust those who are different. That’s why a normal man is a true brother, a true citizen, a true patriot –
Marcello: A true Fascist.
Trintignant’s Clerici was a successful professor, yet still a bachelor, a loner, and a misfit. So he launched himself on a personal crusade to achieve normalcy. He used a two-prong attack. First he would marry, picking a wealthy lusty bubble-headed middle-class ingénue named Guilia, played by Stefania Sandrelli –a wisp of a girl in her late 20’s, in the peak of her loveliness. Sandrelli made Guilia a real person, and that is saying a lot for the actress. Guilia might have been misguided, but she was genuine in her loyalty to Clerici. When she was tempted by the attention of other men, or by a possible lesbian relationship –she steadfastly remained true to her husband. It never seemed to occur to her that her honeymoon in Paris was just a front for Clerici’s fascista espionage. During the train scene, where she admitted to her husband that she was not a virgin, that her uncle had plucked that “prize” and then had continued to molest her for six years, wasn’t it interesting that this adolescent incident had not really hardened her, or twisted up her sense of herself. She seemed to truly love Clerici, and she would bear him children, and stick by him regardless of the unforeseen hardships to come. The lovemaking in the train Pullman car, like the furtive lovemaking in her mother’s living room, was both heartfelt and sad. Clerici’s response to her was more like callous indifference, often being short with her, and disrespecting any of her input. He never seemed to fully appreciate her loyalty and love.
The fantastic whirling scene at the dance hall in Paris lingers long in the memory, where Guilia and Anna danced together, a complex joy to behold, working on several levels simultaneously. Her energy and enthusiasm was unbridled. Anna held her like a would-be lover. She responded naively, or purposefully, as just a giddy girlfriend; a girl who “just had to have fun”. Later in the film, she disclosed that she had been very aware that Anna was on the make for her –and she chose not to participate.
Clerici’s second endeavor was to work very hard on being acceptied as a loyal Fascist, a party member and operative. To achieve his fascista status, he cajoled, politicked, called in favors, told lies, and presented his services as a serious sycophant. Soon we found him diving into the peripheral pockets of the party by volunteering to be a member of the secret police, an agent, and a would-be assassin. He is dispensed a pistol, and given an assignment to ingratiate himself in Paris to his old philosophy Professor Quadri (Enzio Tarascio), who had become a dangerous dissident, and an activist against Fascism. First told just to gain the teacher’s confidence, and report his findings, later he was approached by a veteran agent, Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) –and he was informed that now Quadri had to be eliminated; murdered. Clerici consented without consideration.
Along the way we discover that Clerici is a sexist, racist, arrogant bully, and a coward –who harbors repressed homosexual tendencies, manifesting itself in naked rage mostly directed toward women. Trintignant made this character very three dimensional; using his handsomeness to attract women and men, he was also a very sharp dresser; reed-thin, buttoned-down, skinny ties, creased pants, and expensive scarves and hats. He was also a poser, and this led to comic moments. He would strike a pose while hailing a car, while deciding what direction to walk, and before striding into any room. Initially this did seem weak and odd, but later it could be discovered that this conceit and braggadocio just broadly mantled his insecurity and constant cowardice. He rushed headlong in hot pursuit of Quadri and Anna, knowing full well that he himself lacked the fortitude, the courage to do murder, and he was both fascinated and repelled by its prospect.
Quadri’s young wife was played by Dominique Sanda. She was only 22 years old when she made this film; it being her third film. Now in her 50’s, she acts when she wants to –primarily on French television. At present she is residing in, with her Argentinean boyfriend, and she is performing in a play; acting in Spanish.
Sanda as Anna, made the most of her smoldering sexuality and adventurous libido. She absolutely stole the picture, striking a Marlene Dietrich pose in tight pants and fluffy blouse, her hands deep into her oversized pockets, with a thin cigarette dangling from the corner of the shapely but surly mouth. She was a woman with huge appetites and dark secrets. When Clerici first met the Minister (Bendetto Benedetti), it was she who was sprawled out wantonly on that huge desk in front of him. She spied Clerici there hiding in the curtains. It was just one more secret she kept –perhaps even from her husband, possibly insuring his safety and sanctuary. Whenever she was around Guilia, we could see her lustful and hungry eyes. When she was giving ballet lessons at that dance school, she was lithe, confident, and very physical. It was a mystery as to why she submitted to Clerici’s clumsy and disrespectful advances and ardor, and her exposure of her perky breasts was exhilarating. And then as a denouement, her exit stage right, with her beautiful face contorted in panic and fear, plastered tight against Clerici’s car window, with her hot breath distorting the image, with Clerici’s pale frightened physiogamy hovering mere inches from hers –before she bolted away screaming and rushing into the woods. Amidst the heavy Caesarian symbolism of Quadri’s assassination by knives, Anna darted back and forth between the scanty solace of the leafless white birches; reminding me of the comic elements unintentionally achieved by Sam Jaffe, continuing to toot his trumpet as he was being pumped with shot after shot in GUNGA DIN (1939). The rather inept assassins fired at Anna several times, as she darted like a wounded sparrow, perhaps a comment on their Italian marksmanship. Anna finally fell, mortally wounded, with her white dress against the white of the snow and the trees and the sky; but there was very little blood. I considered that possibly she faked her own demise.
Bertolucci’s dark comic touches were everywhere in the film –like whenever Clerici tried to talk tough and interact with other agents or his superiors, his voice was gruff but his movements and actions were pure Clouseau –or the several times Clerici would turn into a mannequin, freezing into a pose, setting up a tableau, or a comic action –even the way he walked, in mincey little prancing steps, effeminate and silly; or when he was given the pistol, posing at the exit and stiffly pointing his pistol in the air in mock consternation, like a kid with a cap pistol–and that official had dozens of walnuts lying deep all over his large desk and shelves –and even the tragic assassination of Quadri, executed with several short-bladed pocket knives, pumping their arms in frantic multiple stabs with all those tiny blades. Why didn’t they shoot him, or at least use long Sicilian stilettos?
Further what about the Fascist henchman, the agent Manganiello? His role, although a formidable and menacing character, also seemed to suffice as comic relief, at once a foil, an instigator, and possibly an alter-ego for Clerici. Marcello never would have had the courage to do any of the dirty work required of him. Is it possible that Manganiello never existed, except in Clerici’s mind, as a bold fabrication to steel his nerve, and to keep him focused; some dark part of himself that he imagined could actually do whatever was asked of him; so that he could be a good soldier, a loyal fascista?
Each time that Manganiello appeared there was something odd, quirky, absurd about it; never stealthy, smooth, or realistic. Was he then just a bombastic disillusioned fascist, or was he Clerici’s mental creation? Each time he appeared, he was exactly where Clerici needed him to be, and often with a comic high profile, slinking against a building, or walking too close, while he never seemed to be noticed by passers-by. When the woman in the park talked to him, was she actually addressing Clerici? In that scene after Anna and Guilia had disappeared into the Quadri house, he stood there conversing with the air. It was assumed that Clerici was there too, hiding in the bushes; but Clerici never materialized. It is a bit of a stretch, I know, considering Guilia talked with him at one point on the phone –but it certainly gives a whole new fabric to the narrative if Manganiello was more like those several imagined characters (Paul Betteny and Ed Harris) in Ron Howard’s A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001); just figments of the protagonist’s fevered illusions.
Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST (1970) has now achieved both cult and classic status, a beautiful yet shocking portrait of a man and a time that we need to remember, and to pay attention to; the messages are both timely and timeless. Fascism can, and will crop up wherever desperate men are resolute enough to sacrifice the innocent on the slippery alter of their own greed. Fascism can wear many faces, but its stench is tell tale, and its cost is always beyond measure in blood and tears.
From the film:
Guilia: What are you going to do now?
Marcello: The same as everyone else who thought like me. When there is so many of us, there’s no risk.
Guilia: Marcello, don’t go out. They could hurt you.
Marcello: I won’t be in danger. After all, what have I done? My duty.
Guilia: So why then do you want to go?
Marcello: I want to see how a dictatorship falls.
It is evident that because of the complicated construction of the film, often the first viewing leaves even the hardiest movie buff limp and confused. I saw it once 35 years ago, while in college in 1970. At the time I thought the film was dull and pretentious; a big bore. But this is a movie that needs to be seen more than once; it demands full attention to detail in order to fully appreciate the wayward clipped narrative. Somewhere during the second or third viewing, Bertolucci’s artistry, his true motives and powerful symbols make themselves visible –and the terrible truth of the historical and personal tragedy will weigh heavier on our senses; that last look on Clerici’s face during the epilogue, after the horrible betrayal of Italo, sitting in a dejected posture on the curbside –his once orderly world in turmoil, staring at the naked posterior of that homosexual street hustler, who had set up a bed in the edge of a Roman alley –that look becomes closure, and the painful conclusion of Clerici’s tortured descent into hell.
I would rate this film at 4.5 stars.
Glenn Buttkus 2007