Friday, March 24, 2017
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Writers: Alberto Moravia, Bernardo Bertolucci
Photography: Vittorio Storaro
Music: Georges Delerue
Editor: Franco Arcalli
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Gastone Moschin, Enzo Tarascio, Dominique Sanda, Pierre Clementi
I know there's no time like the present for meditations on the sources of 20th-century fascism, what it looked like and how it behaved, yet for the most part The Conformist usually leaves me cold. Or maybe that's the director and screenwriter, Bernardo Bertolucci, who sometimes seems a bit of a Continental Ridley Scott, all outsize reputation and promise, rarely fulfilled, though many films are released. There is so much flash and sizzle to the way The Conformist is constructed that it's easy to be dazzled by its style and lose track of the story and its themes. That might be part of its point, all those glossy seductions of fascism, but the picture is also mired in a certain grainy technicolor look and restless camera and editing of the late '60s and early '70s, which itself seems a little dated and artificial. I can't always follow it, or don't want to. Maybe I just haven't been in the mood—Midnight Cowboy or Once Upon a Time in the West also have many of these trappings and I think they're fine.
In 1938, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a young man of dissolute middle-class background (father institutionalized for insanity, mother a degraded morphine addict) attempting to make a government career under the Mussolini regime in Italy. His psychology is often transparent. He is mild-mannered and dresses well. He is engaged to a silly woman of wealth, Guilia (Stefania Sandrelli), and has the kind of empty friendships and connections that lead to success. By that time in history, for some context, Mussolini had been in power over 15 years, Italy and Germany had formed a powerful strategic alliance, and, with developments in Russia, it was possible to make the argument that democracy was an idea that belonged to the past (again, shades of our own time). Clerici plans to travel to Paris for his honeymoon. His superiors pull him aside and have a mission for him on his trip: look up and reconnect with an old professor of his who fled fascist Italy many years before. This assignment is accompanied with a sidearm (with silencer) and a deeply cynical handler, Manganiello (Gastone Moschin), which clarifies its real nature.
There is some analogue in The Conformist to the "go along to get along" attitudes in sway during the George W. Bush years, which may well still be waiting for us ahead under Trump. As Americans, it occurred to me watching this, we are at least as naïve to the realities of fascism as Clerici, even as we have internalized his way of life, captured in the title. You have to make a life—what are you gonna do? That's the way it is, etc. Clerici is mostly a cipher, certainly for much of the movie, a quiet and well-mannered young man extraordinarily difficult to read. Once in Paris, however, and with the help of an informative if over-the-top flashback to a crazy childhood scene, we see more and more that Clerici is someone who simply can't face reality. He pretends it's something else he's supposed to be doing in France even as he goes through the motions of preparing for the assassination—looking up Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), offering lame excuses to see him, befriending him and meeting his wife Anna (Dominique Sanda, who is pretty much the best player and story element here, all things considered).
I will say the murder scene late in the picture is among the most powerful sequences I've seen in movies, about 12 minutes in the woods where all the themes of The Conformist come boiling to a head. I have to think Alfonso Cuaron studied it closely for a similar scene in Children of Men, for one example of its influence. It's what everything in this movie is headed toward and it's a memorable payoff. A confrontation between Clerici and Anna Quadri that occurs across the closed window of a car clarifies in a scant few minutes everything this movie has to say about conforming and conformity, the deep wells of reality denial on which it depends—even, ultimately, denials of humanity itself.
I think I might be talking myself into liking this movie after all. The character of Clerici, so hard to see at all at first, gradually becomes the figure of a kind of monster as it comes into focus. The final scenes make that clear, but really all we needed was that scene in the woods with Anna. Years later, on the night Mussolini resigns, Giulia, who suspects Clerici's real work, forgives him, saying, "After all, it was an important step in your career." Clerici is the opposite of a glad-handing joiner, yet in the end, simply by doing what he needs to to get along, he is fully implicated, he knows it, he hates himself, and everything is ruined forever. It seems like a reasonable end for anyone who entertains fascism as a way to get ahead, but that might just be me.