Il conformista / The Conformist (1970)

12 01 2023

Sometime in the past six months, I was on a first date. I’ll spoil it for you now: there was no second date. The conversation and company were pleasant enough, mind you, but nothing earth shattering. The interaction gave me one last impression, though. The moment politics ever so lightly became hinted at, the woman in question (who was a few years  my junior I should mention) informed me that “we all eventually feel the lure of conservatism.” On one level, I sort of understood here but on another I thought she had read perhaps one too many reactionary Times pieces about right-wing politics finally becoming cool for the youth. I thought of this woman several times while revisiting Bertolucci’s The Conformist, a film I hadn’t spent any time with in nearly a decade. On my initial viewing, I was blown away by it on a technical level but was left cold by a protagonist that I saw as a toothless coward. I was right then, Marcello Clerici is indeed a coward and someone who has deeply felt the aforementioned lure. However, time erodes the zeal of one’s idealism. As it stands today, I have more patience for the dilemma within Marcello and a result, am now absolutely moved by what must be one of the most beautiful films of all-time.

In the wee hours of the morning, Marcello Clerici receives a phone call and promptly leaves his hotel room. He enters the back of a car wordlessly and is escorted away. The driver is Manganiello, an assassin, and the two, we later learn, are on their way to an assassination. Marcello is deserting his new wife, Giulia, in the middle of their honeymoon. Marcello tells us of a past he is trying to leave behind, most specifically a homoerotic encounter followed by an accidental murder. Leading up to the present, Marcello has told associates and friends that his marriage to Giulia will be one of two key events that will help him achieve a sense of normalcy that has forever eluded him. The other event is the assassination, in this case he is assigned the elimination of a former mentor, Professor Quadri, a left-wing dissident to Italian fascism deemed dangerous by Marcello’s employer.

Following the release of his sensational second, Before the Revolution, filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci meditated on the conflict of being a Marxist with a bourgeois background. “Naturally in every bourgeois Marxist, who is consciously Marxist, I should say, there is always the fear of being sucked back into the milieu he came out of, because he’s born into it and the roots are so deep that a young bourgeois finds it very hard to be a Marxist.” Such a personal conflict is made quite explicit in Before the Revolution, when the main character Fabrizio is torn between his straightlaced upbringing and the idealism of the revolution. The dynamic is different for Marcello in The Conformist though. He has already made his mind up, a complete dedication and obedience to Fascism will solidify his position as a man. Without it, he is incomplete and lost.

As compelling as all of this is, The Conformist is not simply a character study and much of its magic would be lost if so, much of the details weren’t expertly juggled with temporal indeterminism. The film’s source text, a novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia. The novel is told is a straightforward and linear fashion. I haven’t read it but such a structure suggests a defensive strategy in elucidating Marcello’s choices. Bertolucci plays with time more here: using the drive to Professor Quadri’s murder as the setup for a sort of frame story. But we just back and forth from past to present with such stunning dexterity. Certain sequences that would have felt like evidence for Marcello’s cruelty and cowardice begin to take on the energy of a non-sequitur. One of the film’s most stunning visual sequence, when Marcello visits his mother, feels spontaneous even as it is visually poetic.

Bertolucci populates his film with several such set pieces. They have an energy in them that resemble the creation of a young director explicitly inspired by the French New Wave yet rendered in a cinematic grammar that is miles away from Jean-Luc Godard or the various imitators he launched during the 60s and 70s. Bertolucci considered himself a disciple of Godard and The Conformist was a conscious attempt to escape from his influence and do something entirely unique. This is made explicit by the fact that Professor Quadri’s Paris address was (allegedly) the same as Godard’s at the time. So, while the spontaneous energy is palpable it is rendered under an entirely new and different visual grammar, one that eventually inspired just as many imitators as Godard himself. It’s fitting that The Conformist was released at the beginning of the 1970s, because countless new filmmakers spent the rest of the decade chasing the look that Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro perfected here on first try.

It’s as though, almost out of nowhere, Bertolucci birthed an entirely new aesthetic with little to no precedence. His intention to forge a new path outside of the shadow of the New Wave is perhaps helped by the period of the story, but the jump between 1968’s Partner and this is not something that can be explained away by the mere interjecting of 1930s art deco iconography. It’s a new visual style. The markers of the past have been played with it, expertly, to forge something completely unique. The dazzling nature of each sequence must have registered as a shock to audiences in 1970, because it still manages to do the same today. On my initial viewing, I was left cold by a protagonist I found to be cowardly, but times makes fools of us all, and now Marcello’s inner turmoil renders this stunning portrait something far more poignant than I had originally understood it to be.