Adapted from a novel by Alberto Moravia, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist set new standards for how we deal with and respond to the demands of a tyrant. Bertolucci seems to be equating the rise and fall of Italian Fascism, from the early 1920s until 1943, with the short, dreadful, very romantic life of Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a young man for whom conformity becomes a kind of obsession after a traumatic encounter in his youth. Bertolucci appears to be aware the fact that the equation of politics with sex is extremely complex. He has changed Moravia’s ending in such a way that the entire film is steeped in ambiguity.
The structure of the film is a series of non-sequential memories that are evoked in Marcello’s mind as he and another Italian Fascist, a trigger man, drive through snowy French landscapes to attend to the assassination of an exiled anti-fascist who was once Marcello’s philosophy professor. The time is 1936 and not the least of the film’s extraordinary beauties is the way it recalls an era, from the look of the clothes and the automobiles to the imperial nature of the architecture. The flashbacks continue in a somewhat disorienting fashion as Marcello finds himself isolated from society as a child. The period is World War I and his family is quite wealthy. Marcello is humiliated by his classmates until he is rescued, sort of, by Lino, a chauffeur. Lino offers to show him a pistol (how phallic!) and then makes advances towards Marcello, which he partially responds to before grabbing the gun and shooting wildly into the walls and into Lino. He then flees from the scene, assuming that he is now a murderer.
Marcello becomes an unwitting member of a movement that promulgates violence and murder. In the early scenes of The Conformist, he appears to find an identity of sorts as an enforcer. One must assume that he finds the tough guy role appealing largely because he was taunted and humiliated so much as a young man. In Bertolucci’s adept hands, this odd narrative becomes a metaphor for identity and strength. Marcello must feel that if no one takes him seriously, he will have no qualms about taking them out. As the story unfolds, we see the inner workings of cowardice as weak individuals are called upon to engage in deplorable acts, all for the supposed benefit of the state. The irony is that when we first meet Marcello, he is an aspiring idealist defined by his cage in 1930s Italy. Through his pitiful struggle against independence, he encounters futility at every turn.
As he begins to see the caustic cloth covering the fabric of fascist society, he seeks to remove himself from both the gaudy indulgences of his mission-bound mother, and also the institutionally led life of his mentally unstable father. However, within the state-centered needs of Fascism, along with his recent marriage, Marcello discovers an impeccably banal opportunity for government service in which he can disappear. Flitting from Marcello’s traumatic childhood to the road-centered day of the assassination, then back to the honeymoon, Bertolucci creates one of the finest examples of narrative bewilderment.
There are no lavish drinks served here without a bitter truth behind them and no appearance of gunfire without the stark reality of what a complacent position really means in the face of danger. Marcello is in essence a coward. A puppet who remains uninvolved, but is still forced to attend. The cinematography foreshadows dark choices and bleak circumstances. It’s as if Bertolucci is reminding us that there are always choices in life. And consequences as well.
In the final analysis, it is easier to describe the historical importance and immense influence of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist than to describe what it’s about or to discuss the peculiar experience of watching it unfold. The unsettling blend of of images and ideas cannot be satisfactorily dismantled or disentangled. In fact, it is the very strangeness of Bertolucci’s masterpiece that has made it so influential.