Bernardo Bertolucci’s best known and most highly regarded film is a technically innovative and aesthetically beautiful mediation on fascism. What kind of man becomes a fascist? Why does he become a fascist? What does he do when the fascist government he’s dedicated his life to is overthrown?
Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Marcello Clerici, an academic from an upper-class family living in Mussolini’s Italy. Clerici lacks a clear identity, and sense of purpose. While he may be heterosexual, he was also abused by a family chauffeur when he was a little boy. While he may be from the aristocracy, his family is also in decline. His mother is addicted to morphine. His father is confined to an insane asylum. Marcello Clerici wants to be “straight,” to be normal, to fit in with the crowd.
After they decide that the weak, easily manipulated Clerici might be useful, Mussolini’s secret police send a beefy thug named Manganiello to be his handler. Manganiello, who’s played by Gastone Moschin, Don Fanucci from Godfather II, follows along as the newly married Clerici takes his wife Giulia, Stephanie Sandrelli, on a trip to Paris. Giulia is a shallow, sex obsessed young woman who consciously chooses to know very little about her husband’s clandestine activities for Mussolini. But this is more than just a honeymoon. It’s a working vacation. Clerici has been assigned to ingratiate himself with the anti-fascist exile Professor Quadri, his old philosophy teacher, and set him up for an assassination.
The Conformist might be about a spiritually ugly little fascist coward, but it’s certainly one of the most beautiful films ever made. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who would later go onto make Apocalypse Now with Francis Ford Coppola, has developed a remarkable approach to visualizing the fascist mindset. While his camera movements are fluid, dynamic, clearly rooted in the French New Wave, Bertolucci’s sets are static, geometric, grandiose, massive. Taken together, Storaro’s camera movements and Bertolucci’s sets clearly demonstrate the appeal of the fascist aesthetic. The constantly moving, unstable point of view flitting through the clean, brilliantly lit spaces dramatizes what’s going on in Clerici’s mind, his lack of a real identity, his vulnerability to being manipulated, his inability to act when he’s tested, his worship of state power.
Clerici doesn’t so much carry out his mission as stand passively by while Manganiello carries it out for him. It’s his failure to stop Manganiello that’s his most eloquent condemnation. Professor Quadri is not only a principled anti-fascist, but a living embodiment of the liberal alternative to Clerici’s tortured conformism. Anna, his gorgeous young wife, played by a radiantly beautiful Dominique Sanda, takes Giulia under her wing. Clerici immediately falls in love with her. If Clerici’s unstable sexual identity puts him under Manganiello’s thumb, than Anna’s sexual ambiguity is swaggering, powerful, liberating. The way Dominque Sanda stands, her hands in her pocket, her loose hips, he direct gaze, defines lesbian chic in a way that hasn’t been quite so sexy since Marlene Dietrich perfected the same look decades before.
Quadri, in fact, is all too tolerant, intelligent and broad minded. He knows Clerici works for Mussolini. But he also hopes to reclaim him for liberalism and democracy. “You’re a fascist and I’m an anti-fascist,” he says. “We both knew that. But we still decided to have dinner.” Quadri, however, is doomed, not because he’s under any illusions that Clerici is a fascist, but because he doesn’t understand quite what a sniveling little worm the man really is. When he gives Clerici a letter to deliver to the anti-fascist underground in Rome, and he hesitates, he assumes that his old student hesitates out of principle. A real fascist would just take letter, which is actually blank inside the envelope, and turn it over to Mussolini’s secret police without comment. What Quadri fails to realize is that Clerici is genuinely afraid that even touching the letter will get him into trouble, that he lives in genuine, quivering, white knuckled fear of men like Manganielllo.
For Professor Quadri’s assassination, Bertolucci and Storaro, astonishingly, shift gears again. We are no longer in the world of Italian fascism, with its chic futurism and geometric Roman grandeur. We have entered one of Leni Riefenstahl’s Alpine landscapes. Anna’s trust in the innocent, shallow Giulia proves fatal. She mentions that they’re going up to Professor Quadri’s house in the mountains. We can see the pain in Clerici’s face when his wife lets it slip that the Quadris are driving up through a deep, dark wood, a place where there’s hardly any traffic, the ideal setting to murder them both without the danger of witnesses. He knows he shouldn’t betray them. He knows he will. The winding road into the Alps, the blue light, the snowy ground, the thick, black forest, the climax of The Conformist is a visual tour de force that trumps anything else in the Bertolocci’s masterpiece. Nature looks on indifferently as Manganiello’s goons repeatedly stab Professor Quadri, and then hunt down and shoot the terrified Anna. Nature looks on indifferently because nature is grand. Clerici looks on passively because he’s a worm.
In the film’s coda, Bertolucci reminds us that just because a fascist government falls doesn’t mean that fascism is over. “Conformists” like Marcello Clerici learn to adapt, to fit in whatever comes their way. As a gigantic stone image of Mussolini is dragged through the street by the once fascist, now anti-fascist Roman people, Clerici does them one better. He spots a skinny, effeminate blond cruising a dark, curly haired street kid. He decides it’s the chauffeur who molested him as a child. Is it? The film never makes it entirely clear. But Clerici is certain. He not only denounces the poor man as a fascist, he accuses him of setting up Professor Quadri’s assassination. Clerici is so devoid of principle, so devoid of self-reflection that he simply projects his own horrifying betrayal of his old teacher onto a complete stranger.
This is the kind of man, Bertolucci demonstrates, who make the Hitlers, the Mussolinis, the Dick Cheneys and the Francisco Francos not only possible, but inevitable. Marcello Clerici is still a relatively young man at the end of The Conformist, and he’ll almost certainly survive. So what’s next? It’s not hard to imagine him becoming the same kind of lackey for the American occupation that he was for Mussolini. I have no doubt he’ll spend the rest of the 1940s denouncing communist and anarchist heroes of the anti-fascist resistance to the CIA.