The Conformist (1970)

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.

17 thoughts on “The Conformist (1970)”

  1. Great review, which vividly conveys the film’s impact. The final scene was one of the most chilling I’ve ever seen on film, which left me speechless, and perhaps the ultimate message on the indifference and cowardice of the men who make fascism possible. As you’ve pointed out, this film makes manifest the interior psychological makeup of the fascist character and personality, which was the topic of one of my favorite books, “Listen Little Man!” by Wilhelm Reich.

    “Listen, Little Man!” reflects the inner turmoil of a scientist and physician who had observed the little man for many years and seen, first with astonishment, then with horror, what he does to himself; how he suffers, rebels, honors his enemies and murders his friends; how, wherever he acquires power “in the name of the people,” he misuses it and transforms it into something more cruel than the tyranny he had previously suffered at the hands of upperclass sadists.”

    1. By the final scene you mean the assassination, not the denunciation of the two homosexuals.

      The interesting thing about the murder scene is that Manganiello, the man who sets it up, is contemptuous of Clerici, the man who made it possible.

      While they’re hunting down Anna in the woods, he whips out his dick and takes a piss and starts cursing out “cowards and faggots and Jews.”

    1. Nope. Haven’t banned anyone. Link probably got caught in my spam filter. Your previous links have come through so I’m not sure what happened here.

        1. Stanley, the above link has a misspelling in it so it’s not getting through any automated filter on that website.
          Are you sure you’re not blocking it, because either you are or someone else is…

          1. It came through.

            The correctly spelled links did in fact go into my spam box. I’m not sure why. Perhaps the link is on the filter’s black list.

            Just a note. The way my comments system is set up holds a user’s first comment in moderation until I approve it. After I approve the first comment, subsequent comments go through automatically.

            I get dozens of spam links posted by bots every day so the filter’s probably a bit trigger happy.

            In any event I checked out the link. I’m a little confused about why it’s relevant to Bertolucci’s film. Maybe you can give me a quick summary.

            There are no Germans at all in The Conformist. Bertolucci doesn’t even mention how the Germans occupied Italy after Mussolini’s downfall.

            The only non-Italian is Anna, who’s French. I’m not sure if you speak French, but Dominique Sanda breaks into French once (when Clerici compares her to a prostitute and she sardonically thanks him).

          2. No, it’s tagged for a filter by WordPress. People have experimented and it’s being sent to spam on purpose, which isn’t shocking due to it’s totally civil, non-racialist challenge to the official narrative of WWII. Those types of truthing sources pose a greater threat than those with any ideologies attached to them, hence the sneaky type of censorship/repression.

            1. But what does it have to do with Bernardo Bertolucci or The Conformist?

              I thought the whole point of the film was that the “fascist type” has nothing to do with any one particular nation, but persists even after a “regime change.”

              Clerici, who was a stooge for Mussolini, will surely become a stooge for Hitler in 1943, and then a stooge for the CIA in 1945.

              If you want to argue that Mussolini was a hero who saved Italy from Communism, and that The Conformist is a slander on those brave Italian Blackshirts who marched on Rome in 1922 that would be relevant (wrong but relevant). But the link you posted doesn’t even touch on Italian history.

              Revisionist takes on German history are rather beside the point when Italy was fascist a good ten years earlier.

              1. You don’t think the relationship between german and Italian fascism is relevant, or interesting? One thing I’ve noticed is the correlation between excessive patriarchal tendencies, and European fascism a la Italy and Germany. Germany holds a particular interest in that given that it’s a native European population, as opposed to a Mediterranean one, yet from the best I can glean it departs significantly from countries like England or Holland, even Ireland in some fundamental ways. I had a suspicion that your insights into List and the Omen had more accuracy from this point of departure.

                But I became frustrated and gave up. Further, I know less about this meme of german/Italian extreme patriarchal leanings than you might.

              2. Clerici isn’t “strong patriarch.” He’s a weakling.

                This film is about the psycho-sexual profile of a man without a strong sense of self who becomes a fascist.

                The distinction between “European” and “Mediterranean” isn’t something anybody in Germany or Italy would even recognize. It’s a rather loopy American concept that comes out of the Immigration act of 1924. All of Bertolucci’s actors are blond, northern Italians or Frenchmen anyway. There are no racial issues involved.

                The only character with Mediterranean features is the street kid Clerici meets at the end. And he’s clearly gay.

              3. Uh, Stanely, Mussolini himself started out decrying the southern ‘mongrels’ in Italy. I also happen to know Spaniards from Spain who recognize the North African element of their own, but moreover, Italian, culture as a substantive issue. Those northern Italians were trying to secede in our lifetimes from the ‘mongrelized.’ I know some who call themselves the ‘real Italians,’ and these are from Italy.

                What’s more interesting to me is how even north Italians are way more patriarchal than northern Europeans. Where Germany fits in is fascinating. A lot of scholarship has addressed the intersection of patriarchy and fascism. I’m surprised you’re so unfamiliar.

              4. Once again, Bertolucci casts a French, not a Southern Italian actor as Clerici. There’s nothing in the film that talks about southern Italian patriarchy.

                Your view of nordics as feminine and Mediterrraneans as patriarchal is actually a bizarre sort of “reverse orientalism.” You might want to check out Said’s book.

                (traditionally the British and French have portrayed themselves as masculine and Muslims as womanly and effeminate)


                And on that note, this is the last comment that can be effectively nested.

                If you want to continue the discussion, start another thread at the bottom.

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