Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Conformist (Il Conformista) (1970)

It would be too shallow to call Bernardo Bertolucci's magnum opus "The Conformist" (1970) a political thriller. It goes way beyond, further beneath its multiple layers and themes, as Bertolucci, in his terrific screenplay adapted from the Alberto Moravia novel weaves a meticulous, highly complex web of deceit and betrayal while presenting us a character study of a protagonist so extremely ambiguous and unpredictable, yet one we can all relate to as human beings.

At the center of this almost Shakespearean tragedy is Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) a seemingly ordinary man involved with the Fascist Secret Police under the regime of Benito Mussolini in the 1930s Italy. He is the textbook example of a reluctant (anti-) hero drawn into something he doesn't really believe in. Is he really fascist by nature? As one superior official says, most of them are in it either because they are afraid or because they are in it for the money! Are there really people who believe in the ideology of Fascism? Clerici has his own strange reasons to be in the group. He wants to live a normal life. He wants to conform. And for that, he is turning over a new leaf. He is getting married to his sweetheart, a cute but dimwitted socialite Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli). Being in matrimony, having a family, being accepted by society and having a feeling of being belonged are the criteria for leading a normal life, they say!

Marcello is sent on a mission to perform a task for his Fascist cause, pertaining to a certain Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) a staunch anti-fascist who exiled to Paris. Only Professor Quadri happens to be Clerici's teacher from Graduate school, one who regarded Clerici very highly as a student. Does Marcello betray his professor? Is he able enough to bear the cross of the betrayal?

These questions act as devices to drive the plot forward. However, Bertolucci is more concerned about the dynamics of his characters rather than the progression and conclusion of the plot at hand. And therefore, in his extremely intelligent screenplay, he twists Moravia's story in a fashion so as to take us deeper into the psyche of Marcello and give more prominence to his character rather than concentrate on the political intrigue of his Fascist mission. 

Marcello's family life is rife with tragedy. Marcello's father is now an old lunatic who previously worked for the Fascist party. His mother is a loner who finds solace in morphine and sleeps with any guy who gets her the stuff. Bertolucci's screenplay, in its very carefully structured non-linear arrangement, presents snippets of the crucial moments in the life of Marcello; life-altering events, including a disturbing childhood trauma involving a chauffeur (Pierre Clementi), which may have shaped him as the person he has now become. It is no surprise then, that Marcello is doubly cautious when Special Agent Manganiello (the magnificent Gastone Moschin) follows him around in a car, and Bertolucci, in an ingenious filming move, tilts the camera at an angle, an oblique suggestion that something about this scene is somewhat off-kilter! 

Marcello wants to bring order in his life, but of all things he chooses the Fascist Secret Police and matrimony! But given Marcello’s confused state of mind (even pertaining to his sexuality!), indecision and lack of confidence, will he be able to pull it off? After all, it isn’t difficult to see, that despite his pseudo-fascist inclinations, the man has a conscience! In one of the film's best scenes, we see Marcello have a face-off with a priest he confesses to. Being an unbeliever, the confession is of course, just to satiate his would-be wife Guilia. Bertolucci, in a work of fantastic writing, brings out the hypocrisies of the church, and the mindset of a society in general about what constitutes a normal life.

Bertolucci also uses this opportunity to launch a scathing attack on Fascist ideologies and the shallowness of its politics. However, in a very cunning move, he refrains from taking sides and distances himself from either belief! Take for instance that almost surrealist angle of Marcello’s friend Italo (Jose Quaglio), a blind Fascist, also a part of the secret police. He and his blind comrades throw Marcello a party to wish him well for his upcoming married life. 

It may seem odd that all of them are literally blind, but perhaps they are emblematic of the sad truth of how politics is usually blindly followed and that these members of the fascist party are actually blinded by their political leaders into believing something that is extreme and absurd! The celebration is somewhat awkward with two people picking a fight and eventually Italo having a talk with Marcello. Italo mentions to him that they are two of a kind, different from others, and insists that he is never wrong. In a sharp jab at his claims, Bertolucci concludes this scene by shifting focus to Italo’s shoes, which are both of different colours, indicating they are each from different pairs! 

Marcello eventually comes face to face with his old professor. As soon as Prof. Quardi and Marcello get reacquainted, despite their differing political views, Quadri’s faith in Marcello is reignited. They discuss the allegory of Plato’s cave and in the dialog that follows, the theory that "illusions that are the shadows of reality" are akin to the current mindsets of fascist Italians is established. There are two spectacular shots in this scene, brought about by the use of well thought out lighting effects, which corroborate the theory of blinding by deception and also at the same time not entirely vindicating the other side that makes these claims! Blink and you will miss, how Marcello is demonstrating with the motion of his hands a huge wall in the discussion of Plato’s cave and how his shadow cast behind him resembles the classic pose of a particular Nazi dictator! 

Blame it on the rapid editing, but Bertolucci is in no mood to spoon-feed. Grasp it or move on! And on the flipside, it is surely not a coincidence that throughout the scene, we only see a silhouetted professor Quadri, akin to a shadow, no less! Marcello’s reluctance and deviance from a normal fascist nature is rather obvious and the professor refuses to believe Marcello is what he says he is. To further confirm his belief, he even puts him to the test in yet another fantastic piece of writing.

With professor Quadri, Marcello also comes face to face with Anna (Dominique Sanda), the beautiful young wife of the professor who he remembers from some previous encounters (could they be visions from dreams?). Anna is yet another devious character who works in her own strange ways. With what aim, isn't very particularly clear. But we can only infer what could possibly be going on in her mind when she attempts to seduce Guilia as well as Marcello who has very obviously taken an instant liking to her. A weird game of sexual politics begins, as at one point, even professor Quadri appears to be propositioning Guilia! So much for normalcy!

While the astounding cinematography, with fantastic use of lighting and rich colours, by Vittorio Storaro, greatly beautifies the film, it also serves as a symbol for the protagonist’s true state of mind; the changing colours perhaps allude to his inability to conform in any given situation, let alone his personal life. Georges Delerue’s original music is spellbinding and it is especially noteworthy how a somber score that engulfs the atmosphere every time Marcello is in the frame, and changes to a more flamboyant and fanfare-like, just as his partner in crime Manganiello appears on screen!

A remarkable theme in the narrative is also that of doubles and repetitions. Dominique Sanda who makes a prominent appearance as Anna appears at least twice in the film before in scenes you might miss in the initial viewing. And then there’s the ubiquitous chauffeur, a dreaded figure, that makes Marcello rather uncomfortable, be it the man from his childhood memories or Manganiello or his mother’s Japanese chauffeur! 

In the film’s barbaric climax and the shocking epilogue that follows, we get to witness something totally unexpected and that makes Bertolucci’s film all the more devastating in its final few minutes. It makes a powerful impact and leaves you emotionally drained, thanks to Bertolucci’s potent storytelling that is complemented by the bravura, realistic performances by all of the cast. Special mention though is reserved for Jean-Louis Trintignant in a tour-de-force acting performance that is possibly one of the greatest in film history, followed closely by Gastone Moschin as the sly, cold, mocking special agent who sometimes reminds of his famous Don Fanucci character in The Godfather Part II. 

But that’s just one of the things that remind us of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic sequel. One can’t miss the famous image of autumn leaves blowing in the wind, a strikingly similar image seen in The Godfather sequel.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s "The Conformist" is a miraculous piece of filmmaking, albeit one that may require multiple viewings to fully grasp and appreciate its finer nuances so carefully embedded within. It carries an important message amidst all the chaos; one that urges to beware of the deception of the shadows; learn to see what’s real and what is merely an illusion. 

If you haven’t seen "The Conformist" yet, you don’t know what you are missing.

Score: 10/10


  1. Great review and great selection of images too!

    1. Thanks Jai! What did you think of the scene in which Marcello takes off a sticker from Anna's shoe? Why does he do that? Didn't quite get it.

  2. More unforgettable scenes and images in this film than any other I can think of. The stills you have chosen highlight the extraordinary use of colour and framing. Great review. I'm looking forward to watching it yet again, this time with your observations in mind.

    1. Thank you for your kind comments! :) I am glad this review is going to make you see the film in a different light, since you are gonna keep my observations in mind next to you see it.

      Would be great if you can get back on what you thought once you are done.

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  4. Marvelous review! I love how your reviews are less adjectives and concentrates more on what the film is about. This may easily be one of your best. Ah, well... this 21-year-old failed to notice the small points that you observed. Everyone claim this to be a great 'deep' masterpiece but you are THE first one to specify why... I will re-watch it, keeping in mind the new things that I read here. Keep up the great work.

    1. Ah...thank you Mithil...it took some deliberation before I wrote this piece. I loved this film and a lot of the vagueness surrounding its character and events in fact made me read more into it. Some other aspects (particularly the changing colors bit) I read in other analytical articles. Thank you for your kind comments.

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  6. What about the seductive scenes between Giulia & Anna? Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) says she is not a lesbian, but flirts flagrantly w Anna (Dominique Sanda) who desires her. Strange casting, no? Sandrelli became an uninhibited & at times comic actress whose cinematic sexuality is often doubtful. A great film signed Bertolucci.

  7. I am astonished by the way the Film is shot, My best Scene was the Panning shot of the Car from close up to the Back and following in snow later half of the movie, Awestruck need to understand how he did that