Weekend Watch: The Conformist

James Oliver

James Oliver recommends the Bertolucci film that showcased the allure of Fascism

30 November 2018 12:20

We should talk more about the glamour of tyranny. It’s understandable that descriptions of dictatorships concentrate on ideologies over aesthetics, but if historians under-estimate the power of presentation then repressive regimes never do; the Nazis understood branding better than any hip start-up – what is the swastika but a logo? And look at how enduring (and influential) Soviet graphic design is; those commies sure knew how to sell a message.

The Conformist (1970) is a film about fascism. It’s also one of the most visually spectacular films ever made, and these two things are not coincidental. It was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci (RIP), in vital collaboration with production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro; between them, they emphasise the allure of Mussolini’s regime, showing how it reached beyond its thuggish base to seduce the sort of people who fancy themselves as respectable.

In Rome, they filmed in and around Mussolini-era architecture, that modernist update on classicism with its clean lines, scale and space. The light is direct – cold and hard, emphasising the power of those who built them. This is the world of Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a young man who wants to fit in and be a good member of bourgeois society – he has his own reasons for this, reasons we shall get to presently.

He is soon to be married, to an amiable, if vapid, young woman called Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) and their honeymoon will be in Paris. Clerici, however, will have more to attend to than his marital duties; the professor he studied under at university is in Paris himself, an exile. He is a prominent and vocal critic of the Italian administration, so vocal that the regime wants him dead and want Clerici to assist. Good citizen that he is, he obeys.

‘The Conformist’ (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)

Naturally, things go awry. For a start, the professor appears to have a better understanding of Clerici than he does himself. Moreover, the would-be assassin gets the hots for the professor’s free-spirited wife (Dominique Sanda), feeling things he doesn’t feel for his own spouse. Paris itself seems to be doing a number on him; although still the weather is still wintery, Storaro’s camera moves more freely and the juxtapositions of warm and cold colours becomes bolder, a sensual contrast to the muscularity of Rome.

Still, the mission goes ahead – not a spoiler, since the film is told in flashbacks, beginning with Clerici and his fascist handler on their way to do the deed. Not that his compliance does him much good: the film concludes near the end of the war, when Clerici’s closeness to the regime is no longer the advantage it once was. It’s during this final stretch that he has a fateful encounter.

Near the start of the film, Clerici confesses that he has already killed a man. His victim was a chauffeur called Lino who, one day, collected the young Marcello and molested him. Marcello, still a boy, killed him. At the end, he discovers that he was apparently wrong: Lino still lives, causing Clerici’s final collapse – after all, his entire life has been shaped by an incident he now realises now did not take place.

‘The Conformist’ (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)

The business with Lino is the most awkward aspect of the film. The most common reading is that Clerici is a closet-case; that Lino is a manifestation of the homosexuality that he is desperate to conceal, hence his urgent desire to conform elsewhere. The trouble is, Clerici’s very genuine attraction to Anna would rather suggest, y’know, that he’s not actually gay. And besides, it’s all a bit trite to reduce an entire film down to such a simplistic schematic device, especially a film which offers us so much.

Luckily, other interpretations are available. Throughout the film, Clerici is incapable of taking responsibility for his actions; the little worm sees himself as a perennial victim and is never slow to attribute his failings to other people – decadent mummy and mentally ill daddy for starters. Lino – who may well be imaginary both at the beginning and the end – fills exactly the same role.

Clerici is essentially a void. He has no real convictions, but fortunately, he’s part of a society where this doesn’t matter: he almost makes a principled stand against taking pre-wedding confession because he’s not a religious man. His fiancé, however, reassures him that it’s all just for show. No one actually believes! Not even the priests!

So once again, we’re back to surfaces, to the superficial. To appearances. You don’t need to believe to belong, just as long as you belong. People went along with Fascism not because they were molested by their chauffeurs, but because it was easier than not doing so, whatever they told themselves later. But that’s the point of glamour, isn’t it? So we don’t have to look at what’s underneath.