During my high school years, around the time I started getting into world cinema, I remember Bernardo Bertolucci being a filmmaker whose work I had obsessed over for a while – though The Conformist of all his works stands out for being a film that played a crucial factor in shaping where my political worldview. But although I knew that this was the sort of film that a professed Marxist would have made back in the day, observing the mannerisms in which its protagonist Marcello Clerici would have tried to find a means of moving around in a quickly moving world, it only struck me how much of this in part came from a meeting that a younger Bertolucci would have had with Pier Paolo Pasolini. But there’s another understanding of morality that comes into play in The Conformist and thus a haunting resonance comes forth. It’s a haunting film because of how it shows the ways in which trying to achieve pure “normalcy” no matter how that is defined can also destroy oneself in that same process, only creating the very best sort of political thriller in that process.
Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as Marcello Clerici, a man who seems like he could just be any other you pass by on the street during the era. Set in the 1930’s, The Conformist is a film that details Marcello’s slow descent away from reality as he conforms to the Fascist ideology that became definitive of Italy’s own people at the time, under the reign of Benito Mussolini. In the opening, we see him finalizing plans to assassinate his former professor, who became a prominent anti-Fascist speaker. But through a series of flashbacks, we get a sense of where Marcello’s downfall would have started as we learn more about the sort of person he was, from his relationships with other people and even his sexuality – and the extent to which he chooses to repress his own humanity as what he sees as a means of survival. Bertolucci never portrays Marcello in a sympathetic light, and yet that is only the start of where a compelling case study comes into play – not because of what Marcello does, but because of the sort of person that Marcello thinks he wants to become.
There is very frank speak of what the Fascist era has in store for these sorts of people that live in Italy during the time, and Bertolucci also makes clear how the ideology comes to define what a person can see as being moral. But among many things that Bernardo Bertolucci manages to achieve with creating a film like The Conformist is the fact that he also shows this ideology as being “the normal” for the time, and those who are not seen as “normal” would commonly be shunned for being such. And thus we also come to understand what has been troubling Marcello for far too long, whether it be his traumatic childhood experiences or the testing of his own will. We see that the more Marcello conforms to this destructive ideology as a means of repressing his own traumas, he continues to remain so unsure of his own faith in what he is doing and what it will say about him. But in his uncertainty comes an even more damning commentary on authoritarianism as inspired by Italy’s Fascist era, which Bertolucci breaks down from start to finish all too perfectly – only allowing it to strike chords even in today’s political climate.
Bertolucci’s attention to detail for the time period is absolutely stunning, whether it be from Vittorio Storaro’s ever-so-stunning cinematography or the set pieces – perhaps some of the very best to come out from its own era. While the pace is something that feels incredibly demanding, the way in which the imagery even comes to define Marcello’s position in life, from the framing or the lighting – there’s nothing to be said that hasn’t already been said. Every frame looks absolutely stunning, yet also carries something even more depressing right behind it. You get the idea how small and sheltered Marcello feels as if he is from the way the camera introduces him into the frame, either from a distance or often in the dark, but it also feels too crucial to understanding how his impulses build – trying to be the same as any other from the crowd as society would present its own people to be. It creates a perfect highlight of the many differences that make the upper and lower class what they are, perhaps the most crucial element as to what makes The Conformist stand out so perfectly.
If there’s anything else that makes Marcello such a compelling case study, it’s the very fact that we recognize even Marcello is unsure of his own morality. Bertolucci is critical of the idea of being “normal” especially in a world that only builds itself upon nothing more than hatred for others all throughout society, and Marcello’s descent only shows himself to be a tragic figure. From the way in which Bernardo Bertolucci shows you how his lifestyle has come to define him, you also get the idea of his own disillusionment from the society around himself. He’ll do anything he can to try and achieve what he believes to be a “normal” life and even bring more people to come around to himself, but his lack of certainty only shows itself ever too perfectly in the final sequence. It’s a reflective moment for Marcello, where he asks himself whether or not this choice to conform to what people see as “normal” was worth it, especially if he was siding with the losing party the whole time.
The Conformist is a film that oozes tragedy from its first moment to its last, especially in how it paints the destructive ways in which an authoritative ideology would come to the expense of one’s own humanity. Every moment of the film feels perfect, as demanding as its pacing may be. But Bertolucci is so immersed with making this world so perfectly reflective of what had defined Italian history during its period. You never see anything that would be definitive of what’s “normal” because the way we recognize it to be in The Conformist is something that would even destroy any touch of humanity that a person like Marcello would have. But that’s what makes a film like this work so perfectly, because of how Bertolucci acknowledges that Marcello’s willful ignorance only ends up working against his own favour. And the most tragic aspect of that is present in the fact this still remains resonant even today. Because society can only define such a term to that fact it takes away shreds of humanity more and more.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Paramount Pictures.
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Screenplay by Bernardo Bertolucci, from the novel by Alberto Moravia
Produced by Maurizio Lodi-Fe
Starring Jean Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Gastone Moschin, Dominique Sanda, Pierre Clémenti
Release Date: October 22, 1970
Running Time: 111 minutes