The Conformist Film Analysis Essay

A fascinated perplexity is the mood you bring away from The Conformist. In this regard, Bernardo Bertolucci is marvellously faithful not just to Alberto Moravia's novel, on which his film is based, but to the spirit of all Moravia's work, where, infallibly, the more vividly and lucidly events are described, the more incomprehensible they become.

Marcello Clerici, an agent of Mussolini's fascism, travels to Paris to infiltrate a dissident movement led by his old philosophy professor, Luca Quadri. But, during the journey, Marcello receives fresh orders: he must assassinate the professor. Since Quadri's beautiful young wife, Anna, is always beside him, she, too, is at risk. The scene is set for a double murder.

Yet our feelings are never those we expect from such a plot. Little attempt is made to evoke fascism's menace; there are no scenes of mass hysteria or images of marching soldiers. Professor Quadri himself is neither handsome nor charismatic. We never worry about his destiny, nor are we invited to shed a tear for two lovers in jeopardy: Anna does seem genuinely attached to her dissident husband, but she also turns out to be more than ready to kiss Marcello, and Marcello's wife, too.

For running alongside the political thriller, or rather superimposed over it, is a sentimental comedy of the French variety. Marcello has just married the empty-headed Giulia and is planning to carry out his deadly mission during his honeymoon. The oneiric folly of combining such duties receives no comment, as if assassinating dissidents on your honeymoon were the most natural thing in the world: Paris, after all, is the city of political exile and of romance.

Having spent the train journey from Rome confessing to a long affair with a 60-year-old friend of the family, Giulia, who can't be much over 20, first does everything to get her reluctant husband into bed, then, after the couple make contact with Quadri, seems not unhappy to find herself the object of lesbian caresses from Anna, who in turn responds ambiguously to aggressive sexual advances from Marcello. All this on the first day in Paris. That same evening, during a drunken dance at a crowded party, Giulia protests that the professor has made a pass at her. "I'm so happy, I'm sure I'll soon feel awful!" she squeals.

But, again, we don't respond with the smiles and tender anxieties that sentimental comedies usually arouse. The world Bertolucci creates for his characters is wonderfully lush, yet ominous and oppressive, too. The most trivial transactions are heavy with premonition. What on earth is going on?

Like many Italian novels written immediately after the second world war, Moravia's The Conformist travels, as it were, with false papers. Both in its title and the tortured debate it sustains for 300 dense pages, the book purports to offer a socio-psychological analysis of the roots of fascism. Bullied by schoolmates because effeminate, the adolescent Marcello was "rescued" by a pederast chauffeur, who then tried to abuse him. Given the man's gun to hold, the boy started shooting wildly and, whether intentionally or by accident, killed the pervert. From this moment on, he felt profoundly alienated, and it is his longing to overcome the distance between himself and others that eventually leads to his joining the fascist party and choosing to marry the most ordinary of middle-class girls. He must, he decides, become "normal" at any cost; fear of being different, then, is at the root of fascism.

Convincing as it may sound, the idea is a complete red herring when it comes to getting a grip on either the novel or Bertolucci's film. Critics have filled endless pages trying to pin down the normality Marcello aspires to. Is Moravia/Bertolucci telling us that fascism is normality? Or is the irony that Marcello looks for normality in a movement that is the height of abnormality and that eventually asks him to repeat the very action that he was fleeing from: murder?

Then how "normal" is a young wife who doesn't seem overly upset that she was raped at 15, or that her husband has come on his honeymoon without his libido, or that a new female acquaintance is sliding a hand between her thighs? Stefania Sandrelli's performance as Giulia has such giggly, vacuous charm that, normality or no, we can only ask for more. Beside her, Jean-Louis Trintignant as Marcello is magnificently gloomy, his handsome face tense, jaw clenched, hands bunched in his pockets, knees clasped together, always gazing unhappily around, enjoying neither his wife nor the gun he carries. Very soon, we are more anxious for him than for his potential victims.

A mysterious, rather Pinteresque character gives us a clue to where, mute beneath the loud debate on normality and fascism, the real tension of the story lies. Everywhere he goes, Marcello is shadowed by another agent, Manganiello (almost the Italian word for truncheon), inferior in rank and culture, but with far greater experience of spying and killing.

Manganiello plays chauffeur to the more intelligent but inert Marcello; he brings him his orders, checks on his progress, urges him to stop procrastinating and act. "Action must be swift and decisive," he says at one point, yet he seems resigned to the fact that Marcello isn't going to do anything at all.

Here we are at the heart of the story. Despite going through the motions, Marcello is an agent who can't act; he only watches and thinks. If a honeymoon and an assassination have one thing in common, it is that both groom and murderer are intensely involved in life. Marcello has chosen those roles deliberately, but can't deliver. Why not?

Moravia created his mood of paralysed puzzlement by having a hyper-conscious character ponder obsessively over situations that elude explanation (Marcello, we discover, was Quadri's star philosophy student). The consequent melancholy and frustration prompt moments of irrational violence: when Marcello grabs Anna and proposes they run off to Brazil, it is more an attempt to get out of his present predicament than to get into anything new.

Transferring the story to the screen, Bertolucci has to deliver Marcello's tortured lucubration in just a few intense dialogues: a startling confession to a priest; an unsettling conversation with a blind fascist mentor. But what makes The Conformist a masterpiece is its use of colour, camerawork, scene-setting and flashback to achieve a perplexity and wonder that is entirely cinematic and leaves Moravia's literary construct far behind.

Almost every scene is shot in surroundings rich in colour or chiaroscuro, yet disturbingly claustrophobic in their grid-like symmetry. The swept stone spaces and rigid lines of fascist architecture set the tone as Marcello wanders up great flights of marble steps through vast, empty government buildings, only to find the minister he is looking for making love to a whore on his desk.

In Giulia's apartment, the black hoops of her white dress intersect hypnotically with bright sunlight through the slats of half-lowered blinds (a very Italian scene), so that the woman and her surroundings present themselves as a sophisticated puzzle that dazzles the mind out of thought. Often, the framing is slightly angled, tilted, skewed, so that, though the camera movements are graceful and the editing fluid, they never allow the viewer a sense of security.

Stiff and upright in this disquieting world, his smart suits and hats determinedly dull, Marcello finds himself spying on people through frosted glass, or art-nouveau ironwork, or rain-soaked windows. The more separate people are from him, the more he stares. When he buys flowers, he seems uncertain who to give them to: the maid? His wife? Anna? All women are possible lovers. When he picks up a gun, he points it experimentally at fellow officials, at himself, at anyone.

In a bizarre scene where Marcello confabulates with Manganiello in the back corridor of a Chinese restaurant, one of them knocks a low lamp that then swings giddily back and forth for an impossibly long time as Marcello tries to hand over his gun, and Manganiello insists he stay true to his mission. Back at the table where he is eating with the Quadris, Marcello is insulted by Anna for his fascist views, then discovers she is encouraging him to play footsie. Contriving to be tenderly feminine, yet to walk and smoke like a man, Dominique Sanda's performance as Anna is as enigmatic as they come. If narrative usually reminds us how identity is created through interaction - each character becoming more themselves, the more they are dramatically involved with others - this film shows how difficult it is to be anyone at all when those around you are so unpredictable. At intervals, faces are bathed in deep blues, or reds, or yellows, as if to suggest sudden, intense mood swings. Deprived of a neutral light, the would-be objective Marcello is lost.

Bertolucci's visual climax (but much of the credit must go to photography director Vittorio Storaro) comes in a dance hall that is all weirdly blue lattice windows with brilliant red-and-white frames where Giulia and Anna first sway together in a deliciously slow tango, then lead a crowd in a Dionysian dance chain that threads out of one door and in another to close threateningly around the rigid and appalled Marcello.

Never quite descending into the surreal, or the more obvious comic mode of Buñuel, Bertolucci's treatment powerfully underlines the existentialist and absurdist elements in Moravia's thriller. "It's not your country or your ideals you'll be betraying, if you abandon your mission," Manganiello warns Marcello, "but yourself"; as if to say, regardless of beliefs, if you don't act, you can't have an identity. Casually fusing the sexual and the political, he sums up: "Chi non fotte è fottuto." The pathetic subtitling ("You must fight or be beaten") doesn't begin to get across the Italian: "If you don't fuck, you'll get fucked over."

What are we to make of this advice? So many Italian novels that came out of the fascist period give us heroes whose inertia in the political struggle is obscurely paralleled by an exclusion from sexual life. It's the destiny of the impotent Antonio of Brancati's Beautiful Antonio (filmed by Mauro Bolognini with Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale), of Pavese's hero in The House On the Hill, of the narrator of Bassani's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (filmed by De Sica with Lino Capolicchio and Dominique Sanda) and, arguably, of Giovanni Drogo in Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe (filmed by Zurlini with Vittorio Gassman). All these stories undercut political conflicts with a deeper division between those who throw themselves into the struggle and those left paralysed and mesmerised on the sidelines.

Are these characters just indecisive intellectuals, examples of Dostoevsky's claim in Notes from Underground that "the more conscious a man is, the more he is likely to be a highly conscious mouse"? Are they phobic, drawn to action but afraid of it? Or are they archetypal pacifists? Certainly, their instinctive rejection of the demands of conflict is what arouses our sympathy.

Bertolucci made The Conformist in 1970, shortly after disagreeing with his mentor Godard over the revolutionary politics of 1968; the phone number Marcello dials to contact Quadri was Godard's number in Paris, as if Bertolucci were placing the older director inside the struggle and himself in a contemplative position outside. In fact, all Bertolucci's work, right through to the dramatic last scene of The Dreamers, is concerned with the often murky relationship between private life and political commitment.

But maybe exactly as The Conformist addresses existential issues, it also begins to say something interesting about fascism: for example, that life is so baffling in its comedy and beauty that there will always be those desperate to stamp order on it; or alternatively that fascism, unlike nazism, was often more of a dream of decisive action than the thing itself. Either way (or neither), with its visual, textual and symbolic density, its music sliding from sinister to vaudeville, and its plot ever more impenetrable as it accelerates towards the violent denouement, The Conformist remains a hugely entertaining conundrum. I ask for nothing better of a film.

·The Conformist is at selected cinemas now. Details:

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Dominique Sanda. Screenshot

What’s in the bag is Marcello Clerici, and the bag, not surprisingly, is empty.

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Upon its release in 1970, how many of us were prepared for The Conformist? In spite of its being something like his sixth directorial effort, the film was, for most American moviegoers, the first they’d seen of anything by Bertolucci. Although Antonioni, De Sica, Fellini, and even Pasolini, Bertolucci’s mentor, had garnered releases in the US, none of the chilly visual splendors of Antonioni nor the inner-directed phantasmagoricalism of Fellini had much in common with the luxuriant, nearly overripe beauties of The Conformist, not to mention its baroque film technique that, as back in the day we watched the film begin, seemed more determined to call attention to its virtuosic cleverness and opulent visuals than to support the tale it was telling. Had the 29-year-old Bertolucci been having too much fun with Orson Welles’ toy train set?1 Maybe, but you could’ve argued the same for Welles himself when he made Citizen Kane (1941) at age 25.

A first encounter with The Conformist could be an unsettling experience: as much as it was beautiful to look at, the film was disturbing and sexually provocative; toward the end it erupted into sudden violence, then, finally, became mysteriously open-ended. At the time it felt like it heralded a new kind of cinema that just needed time to be absorbed and understood, yet, given time (45 years) and repeated viewings, the impression remains that the film’s visuals and aspects of its story don’t always seem to be on the same page. But is there more method than mannerism in The Conformist?

No better time to start wondering about The Conformist all over again than with Rarovideo’s recent Blu-ray release, which presents the film’s pictorial beauties as never before on home video, but at the same time reminds us that, in 1970, Bertolucci was not just offering us self-indulgent filmmaking.

Bertolucci scripted his own adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s 1951 novel, and it has to be considered a great one. And, like all great film adaptations of literature, Bertolucci takes Moravia’s story to places the text either couldn’t or didn’t intend to go. But as filmed, Bertolucci’s adaptation is also mostly faithful to its events, which the book unfolds in a linear fashion. Moravia begins his story with a prologue taking place in the 1920s (Clerici’s eventful, life-altering year as a 13-year-old), follows it with a two-part central section in 1938 (Clerici as Fascist newlywed on a mission to kill his former teacher), and ends it with an epilogue in 1943 (Clerici greets the fall of Mussolini, the truth of his past, and an attempt at a future).

Bertolucci eliminates the prologue but not its key events, which he enfolds within an ingenious flashback structure that includes Clerici’s childhood and his mission as a Fascist in 1938. He then retains Moravia’s 1943 epilogue, but with important changes to its denouement.

The film begins in Paris in 1938 at dawn on the day of an assassination, with Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and his Fascist handler Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) driving to catch up to the car carrying his former teacher, Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), and his wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda), who are on their way to their summer home in Savoy.

Clerici’s racing to meet up with Quadri’s car is an invention of Bertolucci’s screenplay. Moravia has Clerici remain in Paris while the assassins do the dirty work on the road to Savoy. Since in neither book nor film does Clerici need to be at Quadri’s assassination, Moravia’s version makes more sense and fits with the book’s characterization of its protagonist’s emotional detachment, which often brings to mind Meursault’s existential disengagement in Camus’ L’Étranger. Near the end of his part two, the author serves up a large helping of irony: while Quadri is being murdered, the newlyweds plan the house and furniture they will buy when they return to Rome. When he and Giulia get a delayed message that Lina (in the film, Anna) has decided to join her husband, Clerici merely does a mental shrug of the shoulders and tells his wife, “You’ll never see her again.”

Clerici’s morning journey to the murder is perhaps the filmmaker’s largest and most meaningful alteration to Moravia’s tale (there will be another at the very end). Structurally it’s the film’s timeline armature: as we jump from the journey’s present to Clerici’s past – and then intermittently back to the trip’s present as the car nears its goal – Bertolucci introduces a thriller’s tension to the story because we know of Clerici’s supposed feelings toward Anna and what’s likely to happen to her and her husband at the end of it.

Just as important, the journey becomes a span of time in which we see Clerici’s backstory leading him to Fascism, marriage, a murderous mission during his honeymoon, and finally, sitting in the back seat of a car with a gun in his lap. Instead of Moravia’s sequential storytelling in an omniscient, third-person voice, Bertolucci delivers Clerici’s backstory in a way that could, if we didn’t know better, act as the character’s nostalgic, cinematic first-person retelling of his life.

“Nostalgic” seems an important word in describing what much of the director’s imagery suggests to us, and Moravia’s novel offers nothing of nostalgia. Although it spends a lot of time in his hero’s mind, the author’s omniscient voice is dry and subtly sardonic as he dictates Clerici’s inner monologues: “[H]e thought coldly, ‘In other words, if Fascism falls on its face, and if all the bastards, incompetents, and imbeciles in Rome drag the Italian nation down into ruin, then I’m nothing but a miserable assassin. But things being as they are, I couldn’t have acted any differently.’”2

The novel’s Clerici is nothing if not intelligent, well educated (a former classics scholar), and self-reflective. As he ruminates above, note how Clerici separates himself from the incompetents and imbeciles of Italian Fascism. Something of an elitist, he also believes he’s too smart and controlled to truly be one of them. But throughout the narrative, as he constantly examines his actions and motives, he never gets to the core of exactly what he wants, or why he wants it. He knows he wants normalcy, which, acknowledging the current political and social persuasion of his times, he equates with embracing Fascism and marrying Giulia. But then, betraying his esteemed professor with a goal to his assassination – all the while believing he’s in love with Lina (Anna) – only creates questions over his career and marital choices. As in the quote above, this leads to strenuous bouts of rationalizing: “Normal men weren’t good, he thought, because normality must always be paid for at a high price, whether consciously or not by various but always negative complicities, by insensitivity, stupidity, cowardice, even criminality.”

Trintignant’s Clerici is as much a strange, conflicted eccentric as the book’s, maybe stranger. As played by the somewhat fragile-looking actor, Clerici is no one’s idea of a thug, and Trintignant adds bits of quirky mannerisms, like an occasional mincing step or spontaneous goofy behavior (as when, after receiving the pistol from his contact in Southern France, he points the gun at his superior, then at his own head).3 He befuddles his Fascist handler with literary quotes in Latin and intimidates Giulia with recitations of poetry, giving the impression that he’s too smart for Fascist politics and middle-class marriage – as if he views it all as a game.

At the same time, the film replicates Clerici’s cold, illusory plan to assume a self-defined version of normalcy by joining the Fascist secret police and wedding a bumptiously erotic, dimwitted young bourgeoisie, Giulia (Steffania Sandrelli), who, as Clerici admits to a priest during a pre-nuptial confession, is “all bed and kitchen.” Bertolucci has expressed the complexity of Clerici’s rationalizations by having him specify that he only wants “the impression of normalcy.” Thus, in one line of dialog, spoken as part of a casual conversation with his blind Fascist friend Italo (José Quaglio),4 Clerici blithely (and with a smile on his face) admits that his normalcy will be acquired, a pretense, and not the real thing. Yet, as much as Fascism and marriage might all be a game, he’s desperate to play it. Why, exactly? Neither Moravia nor Bertolucci offer psychological insights into Clerici’s forced alignment with Fascism – we only see or read about the one singular childhood event that author and filmmaker set as the crux of his self-declared abnormality.

In the film, a flashback within a flashback shows us Marcello Clerici as a pampered 13-year-old child of the haute bourgeoisie, who finds himself extricated from public humiliation by a passing pedophile chauffeur, Lino (Pierre Clémenti), who leads Clerici back to his personal quarters with promises of giving him a real gun. There, once the door is locked, Lino removes his chauffeur’s cap, allowing his long hair to cascade to his shoulders.

Here Bertolucci inserts a brief shot of Clerici kneeling close to Lino and caressing both sides of Lino’s face. Whether Clerici is merely gender-confused by Lino’s sudden feminine appearance, or whether this a clue to Marcello’s incipient sexuality is not clear.5 The scene then jumps to Marcello seizing the promised weapon and firing it in defense against Lino’s attentions (he seems fixated on Clerici’s bare knees), and fleeing the room with the chauffeur lying unconscious, with what the boy assumes are fatal wounds.

Clerici narrates the entire episode to the priest as part of his confession. As he details Lino’s predatory intentions in the locked room and his own supposed act of murder, Clerici remains calm and unperturbed by the priest’s interjections of alarm and disgust. He has certainly not buried the memory and exhibits no shame over it, not to mention other feelings, and he’s not about to perform a bunch of Hail Marys as penance.

In applying to join the secret police, Clerici has proven admirable initiative by volunteering to infiltrate the French anti-Fascist circle that’s gathered around a former teacher from his school days, Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio). Even better, the mission is Clerici’s idea to begin with. Still, at least one official is puzzled as to what motivates Clerici to join them. Few, the official opines, sign on because they zealously believe in Fascism, and neither faith in the system nor fear of it appear to drive Clerici.

There are visually dazzling scenes while Marcello and Giulia remain in Rome, the most famous being the sequence set in Giulia’s family apartment, with Sandrelli’s fulsome body draped in an extravagantly patterned dress that plays fun and games with the slanted lines of midday sunlight filling the room from the closed window blinds. The effect is so beautiful that it’s disorienting, and, when you think about it, counter to the mood of what’s really being depicted here: a rather frigid, manipulative man being confronted with his fiancée’s demonstrative sexual demands. When the maid enters the room, Clerici jumps, somewhat comically, from their embrace on the floor to land sitting straight-backed on the couch. It turns out Clerici merely wants to behave correctly, even in the maid’s presence, as a man not engaging in premarital sex. So, is he genuinely turned on by Giulia or not?

He certainly seems ready for action on the honeymoon train en route to Paris. With their compartment drenched in honeyed, late afternoon sunlight, Clerici gives himself over to sex with Giulia. As a married couple, their sexual union is now sanctioned by society and the Catholic church: it’s normal. Possibly, then, Clerici is merely going through the motions of what’s expected from a man on his honeymoon. Yet, as filmed, there’s nothing dryly ironic about the pre-coital make-out session, especially as enhanced by the lighting design and the string-dominated swells in Georges Delerue’s orchestral score. Or is this where the irony lies? In setting Clerici’s conceivably dispassionate lovemaking with color photography and music better suited to a French romantic film, Bertolucci creates a tonal dissonance.

Delerue’s score conspires more than once with Storaro’s photography to layer scenes with an unexpected yearning quality. An earlier scene has Clerici, on his way to visit his institutionalized father, go by the dilapidated family manse to pick up his mother, who, besides being a drug addict, has bedded her young Asian chauffeur. Clerici, out of spite and disgust at his mother’s sexual improprieties (and perhaps out of a strong bias against chauffeurs in general), has his thug handler beat the chauffeur unconscious.

A short sequence follows in which Clerici, his arm held tightly around his mother (do we sense that they’re a bit too close?), walks the two of them to his own car. A breeze picks up, lifting a layer of russet autumn leaves and sending it toward them. Delerue’s music works manipulatively here, too. The effect of the leaves, the camera movement (it follows the leaves at a low level toward the couple, who walk counter to them), and the melancholic mood in the score is one of intense, wistful nostalgia, which is certainly at odds, or again, dissonant, with the unsavory elements of the prior sequences.

Similarly the film’s initial 1938 sequence, set in a radio station, contains nostalgic elements, this time apparently personal to the director himself. Bertolucci, born in 1941, had no memories from the Italy of 1938, but he begins the scene with a girl trio on a soundstage singing the kind of pop tune that must have haunted his childhood (think an Italian version of the Andrews Sisters). When the musical number finishes up, the director/screenwriter inserts a whistling novelty interlude that he remembers having heard over the radio in the forties.6

These re-creations are meticulously imagined and rendered, almost but not quite in a camp manner, and for their duration we enjoy them for their own sake. The singing trio is somewhat like the musical stage act Fellini reimagines in his boisterous 1940s evocation in Roma (1972), but Fellini’s sequence is pure nostalgia. When Bertolucci’s musical re-creation and whistler wrap up, Italo reads banal Fascist propaganda to his radio audience, and we’re back in the bleak reality of Clerici’s ongoing process of self-annihilation.

Arriving in Paris with Giulia, Clerici has only the afternoon and evening of a single day to set his mission in motion. But within hours he finds himself distracted; he believes he’s falling in love with his professor’s young wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda). Shortly after meeting the professor and his wife, Clerici makes aggressive sexual moves on Anna, who at first appears compliant with the advances, but then, later that evening, pulls nasty tricks like biting Marcello’s lip (and drawing blood) when he attempts a kiss. Anna plays an erotic push-pull game with Marcello, keeping him off his guard, because she knows what he is and why he’s here and wants to survive this intent.

With most of the scenes featuring Clerici and Anna taking place at dusk or evening, we find that Paris, like l’amour,est bleu. In the streets of the city, as evening falls, Clerici stalks Anna and Guilia as they go shopping. Storaro photographs the exteriors and interiors in available light, which turns the exterior evening light a rich, Technicolor blue. The film captures interiors in luxuriant yellows and reds, with any glimpses of the outside through windows featuring that same high-key blue.

The photography’s insistence on such an intense cool/warm color design feels deliberate in the mood it creates, even if it’s usually counter to the tawdry aspects of the developing story. If anything, the colors have pushed the film’s retinal delights higher from the scenes in Rome. Paris looks delightful, romantic, as if Marcello and Guilia actually are in the midst of a deliriously happy honeymoon. As much as Giulia may be floating in this delusion, Clerici and Anna are not.

When the women separate from their shopping spree, Clerici tracks Anna to her job as a ballet instructor of children. The young Dominique Sanda’s performance has already projected a strong sense of Anna’s pride in the face of knowing what Clerici’s truly about, and, in a bid for her and her husband’s survival, how she is able to manipulate and negotiate his supposed desire for her, in spite of her deep hatred of what he is. Bertolucci’s brief sequence of Anna, dressed in a black leotard instructing her small charges, is a stunning display of the actress’s elegant, sensual grace.

Appearing unbidden at her dance studio, Marcello is like Actaeon discovering Diana bathing naked. Indeed, yanked into a storage space by Clerici, Anna spontaneously pulls her leotard down to her waist, and you realize that Anna, like Diana with Actaeon, has gotten Clerici where she wants him. Or has she?

Clerici doesn’t seem smitten by the sight of Anna’s bare torso and puts his back to her, while Anna, still half-naked, goes to stand closely behind him at the window where they are both bathed and united in the intense blue hue of evening. The color has now gone from an ironic evocation of romance in the City of Light to a chilling visualization of Anna and Clerici joined together in a tragic contingency that will end in her death. And at that moment, awash in blue, they both seem to know it.

This entire scene, nudity and all, is the fulcrum for Anna’s character. It points up her bravery (and the fear and desperation behind it) and her bristling, native intelligence (she’s certainly got more of a handle on the situation than Clerici does); above all, it’s a vision of a physically strong, beautiful woman in the prime of her life, who’s also an unabashed lesbian willing to make shameless sexual overtures to Giulia that simultaneously undercut Clerici’s need to control Anna. Her strength, her complexity of motives and sexual drive – and yes, her youthful beauty – make her eventual ugly death all the more devastating.

When both couples, after dinner at a Chinese restaurant at which Anna plays footsie with Marcello, end the evening at a dance hall, the blue of the evening and the yellow/red of the hall’s interior again conspire to the hues of wistful memory. Everyone – the dancing couples on the floor, Anna and Giulia, even Quadri – enjoy themselves while Clerici sits grimly apart at the edge of the floor. Early on, Bertolucci inserts a shot of Clerici from the exterior through a window, on which, obscuring the back of Marcello’s head, is pasted a seemingly vintage postcard of Laurel and Hardy that appears to carry an inscription and autographs. What have we here? More personal nostalgia from the director? Appropriately enough, the postcard carries the blue of the evening light, contrasting with the yellow of the interior containing Clerici. In the near distance, Anna dances with Giulia.

When Sanda and Sandrelli perform their “Sapphic” tango, Bertolucci introduces his recurring motif of the dance, whether it takes the form of another tango in Last Tango in Paris (1972), or a country dance in 1900 (1976), or a misplaced Strauss waltz in The Last Emperor (1987).

Anna and Giulia’s tango is so extravagantly led by Anna that it almost appears to be a joke to further unsettle Clerici’s amour propre, but at this stage of Anna’s erotic game playing, she implies that she wants to stay behind in Paris with him and Anna, rather than accompany her husband to Savoy.

The dancing and the general conviviality lead to Giulia initiating a kind of circle dance, in which all the patrons of the dance hall, linking hands, prance outside to round the building, leaving, with pointed significance, Clerici and Manganiello in their wake.7 When they all return inside, the line of dancers creates an ever-tightening spiral around Marcello in the middle of the dance floor, a superb visual metaphor expressing much the same as a key passage in the novel: “The dense crowd on the sidewalk surrounded him on every side with a swarming movement that seemed to be the movement of life itself.”

Marcello’s backstory ends abruptly when his car catches up with Quadri and Anna, the killings commence, and the film throws us headlong into the cold morning light of Fascist atrocity – an explicit blast of violent reality that rips us from the richly beautiful, often provocatively indulgent visuals depicting Clerici’s less than pretty doings in Rome and Paris.

Though it’s a death like Caesar’s, with multiple stabbings from a circle of faceless assassins, the professor’s murder has a blunt, nearly silent banality to it that only ups the amperage of horror at what, in the world of Fascists, is commonplace, diurnal. This is what politically hired thugs do because, sanctioned by “duty,” they have permission to. Once the call goes out, there’s never any shortage of those jumping at the chance to assume that duty.

When Anna flees to Clerici’s car to scream and pound at the window that separates them, Clerici sits frozen in his inability to save her – or to kill her, as Manganiello sees is Clerici’s duty here – and thus he fails at being either Fascist or human. The brief sequence depicting Anna’s terror, frustration at Clerici’s inaction, subsequent flight into the forest, and final murder feels like the longest in the film because it’s so fundamentally disturbing. As she’s hunted down like an animal, Anna’s being in such athletically good shape gives her murderers a hard time catching up with her, and this only adds to our distress because we experience her mortal panic that much longer before they finally snuff her out.

All of Bertolucci’s alluring image-making during the backstory, his fragrant but puzzling touches of nostalgia made in partnership with Delerue’s score, his visually suggestive color designs – all these powerfully imagined, sometimes seemingly indulgent, filmic elements – collide head-on with Anna’s crass, appalling murder. The violence in this scene – and by this I mean the violence of Anna’s terror as well as the murders – has an immediate, visceral, “real” quality quite unlike anything else in the film.8 This quality is heightened by the soundtrack, which features, not Delerue’s mood-enhancing music, but initially, a wintry silence broken only by the creaking of the trees in the wind, Anna’s screaming, and as she’s pursued, her jagged, panicked intakes of breath.

The scene still shocks today and ends the core 1938 narrative like the slam of a door. Just as Moravia labels Clerici’s ironic comeuppance in 1943 an epilogue, the film’s scenes in 1943 form one too (albeit unlabeled), but one that, unlike most movie epilogues, leaves the audience holding the bag. What’s in the bag is Marcello Clerici, and the bag, not surprisingly, is empty.

After the murders, the first we see is a highly domesticated Clerici putting his infant daughter to bed while a radio announces that Mussolini has been deposed. Like Moravia’s Clerici, the film’s Marcello takes the news in stride, almost like he’s thinking, “Oh well, I guess this Fascist thing just didn’t work out.” In fact, receiving a call that his friend Italo needs help, he’s somewhat eager to go out and see what the fall of a dictatorship “looks like.”

Bertolucci makes meaningful changes to Moravia’s ending, which is as dry and sardonic as the rest of the novel. Here, the author has Clerici and his wife go out to experience the dictator’s fall. The two of them wander a blacked-out Rome noisily celebrating Il Duce’s fall. Momentarily separated from Giulia, Marcello runs into Lino, and Clerici expresses his surprise at his survival, then despair over basing his adult life on something that, well, didn’t go the way he thought it did, but Lino, if not in so many words, tells him to get over it, and that’s that. Lino quietly disappears back into the shadows.

Rather too quickly banishing all thoughts of living a lie, the novel’s Clerici decides that, indeed, he must make a fresh start, and the next morning gathers his family to flee Rome and seek this new beginning in the countryside. Instead, they encounter the war that’s still going on. When an Allied plane strafes their car, Giulia and their child die instantly, and Clerici lies wounded midst the wreckage listening for the plane’s return. End of story.

In the film, Clerici, after leaving his apartment, meets a panicked Italo on a bridge, where his friend expresses fear that the two of them might be exposed as Fascists. Albeit calmly, Clerici appears to agree that this is not an unreasonable fear, and the men wander into what appears to be the street level of the Colosseum,9 where Marcello overhears the surviving Lino attempting to pick up a male prostitute. After confirming the former chauffeur’s identity, Clerici’s reaction is explosive. Gesticulating wildly and pointing at the fleeing Lino, he loudly declares him a Fascist. Realizing as Marcello does in a flash that his entire adult life has been a fiction, it’s a gesture of futile blame. His choices – most specifically becoming a Fascist – have rendered him a non-person, a cipher.

Or a shadow about to be obliterated. Earlier in the film, when Quadri attempts to dissuade Clerici from Fascism, he picks up on his former student’s mention of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, from which the professor garners, somewhat inappropriately, a metaphor for Italy’s nationalist ideology. While Quadri posits that Fascism works on Italy like Plato’s shadows do on the cave’s prisoners – that is, adherents like Clerici mistaking the dehumanizing system for reality – he pulls up a shade in the semi-darkened room, and Marcello’s shadow, projected on a wall, vanishes. This may be clumsy or imprecise symbolism – it’s not inspired by anything in the novel – but the image of the disappearing shadow speaks memorably to the insubstantial nature of Clerici’s constructed identity.

Also, Clerici is not the only Bertolucci protagonist to find himself stranded on the wrong side of history, like Alfredo Berlinghieri in 1900 or Pu Yi in The Last Emperor. Even Paul in Last Tango in Paris dies a lonely death when he attempts a “real” relationship with the impossibly young Jeanne, who only wants to sever their clandestine affair and proceed with her “pop” marriage with Tom, her jejune filmmaking fiancé. Paul accepts history; Jeanne rejects it.

As with all these defeated men, Clerici’s hollow status is intermixed with the forlorn aspects of his sexuality, and, in The Conformist’s very last image, Bertolucci throws Marcello, and us, a curve in that direction. Having encountered the living Lino, Clerici has already had his “gotcha” moment, which could have neatly ended the film with the irony landing squarely on Marcello’s head. But Bertolucci doesn’t want “neat,” and I’m not sure he’s all that comfortable with audience-pleasing, curtain-descending irony.

So then, after abandoning Italo, who is haplessly swept up in a crowd of celebrants, a solitary Marcello takes a seat at the foot of the stairs that lead up to the male prostitute’s improvised crib. Before the prostitute positions himself nude on a makeshift bed, he cranks up a gramophone, which plays a lovesick pop ballad, “Come l’Ombra” (Like a Shadow), with a chorus, roughly translated, that reads: “You weary shadow walking away from me/What are you missing from life?”

While it plays, Clerici turns, fixes his gaze on the naked prostitute, and it’s here the film ends, with the song continuing to play over the end titles.10 In his interview, Bertolucci briefly discusses the film’s ending, saying the song had been chosen purposely, that the lyrics pertain to Clerici’s existential predicament.

Bertolucci is cagier about Marcello’s final gaze and what it means. By itself, Clerici’s gaze tells us nothing; it doesn’t even ask us a question, much less display a quantifiable emotion. But by sending it directly to the prostitute – who is either retiring for the night or displaying his body as available – Bertolucci does foment a question: What is, finally, the nature of Marcello’s sexuality? As a weary shadow11 missing something from life, is he a repressed homosexual? The interviewed Bertolucci hints as much, saying that “[Clerici’s] diversity is more sexual, profound and latent …” By “diversity,” Bertolucci may be referring to what Clerici has always felt was “abnormal” within himself, but here Clerici believes his deviancy lies in his killing Lino, whereas, once we see the living Lino, the filmmaker points to a diversity more deep-seated: his sexuality.

If diversity was in fact Bertolucci’s word choice – he spoke his interview in Italian, and I’m quoting the translated subtitle – it’s a good distinction from the word abnormal. Abnormal/normal is Clerici’s phantom duality, not the writer’s or the filmmaker’s. The interpretive point here is not that Clerici becomes a Fascist (or marries Giulia) because he’s a repressed gay man, but that he had in essence become an incomplete man because of that denial. By assuming the malignant but vaporous mantle of a Fascist, Clerici completes the eradication of his humanity.

A sequence in the novel may have suggested what Bertolucci makes implicit (and a matter of interpretation) in his ending. In Paris, Moravia has Clerici wandering the streets, when a wealthy aged gay man (driven by a chauffeur, of course) pulls up in a car and tries to pick him up. Clerici calmly demurs, but the man says he only made the move because he thought Clerici was gay: “‘Your eyes. They’re so sweet. They’re like a caress even as you’re trying to frown … they speak for you despite yourself.’”

After the man leaves, Clerici thinks it over in his customary dispassionate manner: “Maybe … I am [a homosexual] … without even knowing it, despite myself …”

In the film, Clerici’s latent homosexuality would put another layer of paradox on top of what Clerici’s disillusioned wife can only refer to as the “Quadri affair.” Accepting this, his desire for Anna was likely a fiction, too, an empty posture with empty gestures from an empty man.

Before he meets Anna, Clerici encounters women played by Dominique Sanda twice – first as a woman in the Fascist minister’s office, then as a prostitute in the brothel in Southern France. By planting these doubles, Bertolucci could be suggesting that the source of Clerici’s desire for Anna springs from his own unexamined psyche. If so, the Parisian Anna is something of a figment, and the real, flesh and blood Anna is the one screaming at his window before she is shot down in the forest. Nothing about Clerici is as substantial as the screaming, terrified Anna or her eventual, bloodied corpse.

Allowing for cinematic conventions, when a film cuts away from close-ups of a man’s face to images of his past, it often signifies that we’re seeing the man’s memories, which then could lead you to view the long sections of flashbacks in The Conformist as Clerici’s memories. This might go to explain the nostalgia and the heightened visual lushness, but the mechanics of the film are nothing so simplistic.

The visuals are not in Clerici’s head; they come out of Bertolucci’s, aided greatly in their creation by the photography of Vittorio Storaro. Some of the film’s attention-getting imagery in the flashbacked Rome and Paris sequences have satiric or ironic intent, but some of it is dazzling just because Bertolucci is having a good time making a film. There is also a clear delight in recreating the Italy of 1938, this being a kind of imagined nostalgia. When he made The Conformist, Bertolucci was, after all, a hyper-talented young man full of beans.

Whatever is in Clerici’s head, however, or whatever his true feelings are for anything or anyone, is not granted to us by the film, and this is done quite purposefully. In spite of Clerici’s harrowing adolescent experience, its causal relationship to the adult Marcello’s joining the secret police is a symbolic one, not a key to who he really is. For example, if he is indeed a repressed gay man, it’s not because he had a nasty experience with the self-hating gay Lino. And certainly neither Moravia nor Bertolucci are out to offer Marcello Clerici’s story as a lesson in how ordinary men become Fascists. Clerici is far from ordinary or a stand-in for the men of post-WWI Italy; he’s indecipherable and a blank.

Yet both book and film are political works, and as such they mean business, attacking Italian Fascism from different generational perches. Moravia lived and suffered under Fascism, and his novel has an undercurrent of controlled rage at the system’s bland idiocy. Bertolucci, an avowed Marxist, views the period at a distance, but portrays Italy’s Fascism as an inhumane blossoming of empty-headed nationalism, one that would necessarily succumb to change. In the film’s last image, as he sits alone to stare at the prostitute, Clerici’s caged vacancy is emblematic of Fascism’s failure as it drowned in the tide of history.

Italy, France, Germany/1970/113 min./Color/OAR 1.66:1/In Italian with English subtitles. Blu-ray disc issued by Rarovideo in 2014. Includes the documentary film, In the Shade of The Conformist (57 min.) and illustrated booklet containing a critical essay by Emiliano Morreale and excerpts from reviews published the year the film was released. NOTE: Images illustrating this article are screenshots.

— Gordon Thomas

Gordon Thomas, trained as a painter, is a photographer living in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts with his wife. Film has fascinated and worried him ever since, as a small child, he saw Godzilla in 1954.

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