This is a remarkable film. I suppose that’s the point of almost all the films I’m posting on here these days, but this one is unique for its accessible complexity. It’s highly psychological, ingeniously edited, beautifully shot, philosophically oriented, and powerfully didactic. Before this, had only seen from Bertolucci: The Sheltering Sky and Besieged. Have somewhat avoided his other stuff on moral grounds, but this one was on the list. Reading the chapter on it in Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (Marcus, 1986, Princeton) was quite enlightening. So if anything below seems particularly intelligent, that’s where it’s from.
Marcello Clerici, the title character, only holds the title of “the conformist” ambiguously and, more than that, ironically. The idea is that he conforms to Fascist idealism during World War II in order to suppress tendencies (both psychological and sexual) that resulted from a traumatic experience as a child. He marries a simple, unintelligent woman, joins the Fascist secret police, and drowns his “other” desires in heterosexuality, all to meet the status quo.
Early in the film, Marcello meets his blind friend Italo in a radio studio. Clearly, “Italo” personifies the nation at the time, blindly adhering to Fascist ideology under Mussolini. Through a glass, the two men see three women performing. They are dressed identically, singing in unison, and dancing together. They seem to illustrate the nation of Italy at that period in all its conforming. Following their performance, Italo goes on the air to spread Fascist propaganda, which seems to be linked not only to his blindness, but to the previous performers.
The shots of the office of the minister (where Marcello receives his orders) are curiously similar in style to the walls of the asylum where Marcello’s insane father is housed in a straight jacket. I’m not sure if this is deliberate, but it seems consistent with the rest of Bertolucci’s style.
The film’s editing is amazing. It’s rather violent, just as the flashbacks that we witness are intrusions on Marcello’s psyche while trying to fulfill his orders. An early shot of the Eiffel Tower seems out of place until later, when Marcello and his wife find themselves there during Marcello’s psychological crisis. There are also lots of split screens – split by walls and room divisions, often while the characters are still conversing through the dividers. This pictures not only Marcello’s solitude, but his fragmented and conflicted state of mind. The crooked, diagonal shots (almost surreal in nature) also seem to indicate Marcello’s skewed view and non-conformism. Despite his efforts, he does not fit into the mold in which he has placed himself.
The flashback of Marcello’s childhood trauma is orchestrated with supreme competence. (Though Bertolucci is lauded for the editing, in interviews, he gives all of the credit to his editor, without whose input Bertolucci would have never considered doing it the way he did.) Marcello’s present movement flagging down the car are paralleled to perfection with those of his while he was a child. When he was a child, his flagging down a car led to his first pseudo-murder, just as he knows that flagging down his personal thug Manganiello will also result in murder at his hand. The continuation and conclusion of the flashback while in the confessional solidifies that Marcello is in a moral dilemma with very moral ramifications. His sense of guilt from his past requires him to confess his sins. But more than that, he is pre-guilty over the murder he will commit in the near future. Knowing that it must be done, however, he visits the priest for absolution before he commits the sin. The priest tells Marcello that his sexual liaisons thus far in his life are not “normal,” as he believes. The priest urges Marcello to normalcy by having a wife and family. Now the church, symbolic both of Italy at the time and of the moral status quo, tells Marcello to conform further. At a party shortly thereafter, Italo, surrounded by other blind friends, speaks to Marcello more about being “normal.”
One of the most significant parts of the film occurs when Marcello finally meets with Professor Quadri in his study. Marcello brings up Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Bertolucci cinematographizes the myth by allowing light from only one window to enter the room, with Marcello’s shadow cast up on the wall until he opens another window, causing his shadow to vanish immediately. It is Quadri who makes the explicit connection between the allegory and Fascism in Italy. By linking The Conformist with Plato’s allegory, Bertolucci again indicates that this film is about morality. What is not mentioned in the film, but further reading of Plato teaches, is that the lesson of the allegory is not chiefly epistemological but rather ethical. The man who discovers the truth by coming out into the light of day is constrained to revisit the cave and tell his companions there of the illusion versus the truth. Quadri’s escape to Paris to form an anti-Fascist movement (that does nothing but distribute pamphlets) is a cop-out. Rather than returning to the belly of the beast (Italy), he flees and does not fulfill his moral obligation to root out Fascism where it exists.
Also, Bertolucci has made clear that cinema is an example of Plato’s allegory. It has light cast into a theater by means of a rear projector while an audience watching the images on the screen, often taking them to be real. Bertolucci’s film is making a moral statement: that its viewers leave the theater to spread truth, the sort of truth portrayed in the film about psychological honesty and political obligation.
The dance scene is another famous example of Marcello’s inability to conform. After sitting while the others dance, he eventually gets up, but remains by himself in the middle of the floor, moving in the opposite direction from the rest of the dancers, who are joined by hands. Five years later, he teaches his daughter the Ave Maria. His daughter is blond-haired and blue-eyed, unlike her parents but just like one of Marcello’s victims, Professor Quadri’s wife, whom Marcello desired. The walls in his daughter’s room are painted to look like blue, cloudy skies. Not only does the image connect with an earlier one when Marcello walked past a similar painting, only to have its background be nearly identical, but it again pictures Marcello living in an artificial and contrived world in which he does not belong.
The film’s final scene almost perfectly correlates to Plato’s allegory. But significantly, though Marcello is facing the truth about himself psychologically and sexually, the fire is neither in front of nor behind him, but rather beside him. The ending is ambiguous, leaving the decision in the hands of the viewers. Bertolucci acknowledges Marcello’s dilemma but transfers the moral responsibility from the character to the viewer.