Blog Directory CineVerse: An arthouse classic that certainly doesn't conform to the norm

An arthouse classic that certainly doesn't conform to the norm

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

The Conformist, a 1970 Italian film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, is an adaptation of Alberto Moravia's 1951 novel bearing the same title. The narrative unfolds within the backdrop of Fascist Italy, centering around Marcello Clerici—a man of feeble resolve who ardently seeks validation by adhering to societal norms of the era. Crafted during a time marked by profound societal and political upheaval, the film is a probing exploration of themes like identity, political manipulation, and the individual's tumultuous endeavor to conform to oppressive ideologies. Bertolucci's directorial finesse, coupled with the dazzling and innovative cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, synergistically forges a film that is both visually captivating and artistically intricate.

Click here to listen to our CineVerse group discussion of this film conducted last week.

What makes this film memorable, different, and worthy of admiration? First, the cinematography by Vittorio Storaro is game-changing good, boasting curious colors, shades, and filters that accentuate a given shot or scene as well as fantastic lighting aesthetics that sometimes employ strong contrasts between light and dark or that capitalize on stunning beams and pools of naturally sourced light. Recall the scene outside the restaurant kitchen where the swinging light fixture creates an oscillation of light and color, or the lovemaking scene where the hues quickly change, or the flashing neon across Marcello’s face in in the opening shot. The movie’s look and lighting schemes serve as quintessential proof of how cinematography can provoke emotions and enhance the story.

The fascinating compositions in The Conformist continue to enthrall, as well. Often, characters are placed within the center of the frame, visually isolated or trapped within an imposing or vast milieu. This film benefits significantly from interesting and creative camera angles, giving us curious spatial perspectives from, for example, overhead, the corner of a room, or a canted streetscape view. Likewise, the filmmakers employ distinctive mobile camera shots and camera movements that linger long in the memory, from the low tracking shot of the blowing leaves to a sudden crash zoom to the jarring handheld camera shots as the assassins chase Anna. The filmmakers also borrow liberally in particular from two highly influential cinematic visual approaches: German Expressionism, and film noir.

This is a bold film, as well, in how it makes a political statement – arguably one that, although it focuses on the Fascist Italy of the 1930s and 1940s, would have been resonant and attention-getting in 1970, a time of political and social unrest in Italy. Interestingly, the movie provides lessons to be learned in today’s political climate, perhaps suggesting that there are many Marcello types among us right here in America who fall into a particular ideology just for the sake of conforming or repressing deeper problems.

The Conformist also remains fresh because it so effectively explores the psyche of a person at battle with himself. This is more of an intricate character study, in which we gradually piece together, through multiple flashbacks and a fragmented narrative, the reasons why a man has chosen to adopt conformity and fascism without fully committing to the cause. This film’s plot will likely disappoint those looking for a conventionally comprehensible narrative and traditional three-act structure. It challenges the viewer to remain engaged, ask questions about Marcello and his motivations, and determine why he makes the choices he does.

Per Vox writer Aja Romano: “In any other film, the driving tension would be the obvious question of whether Marcello will be morally bankrupt enough to kill the professor, simply to adhere to his vision of normalcy. But…it’s not the central question…Rather, Bertolucci is interested in a deep-focus look at Marcello’s path to the assassination, and when, exactly, he stops ironically participating in the game he’s signed up for and begins, for all intents and purposes, actually operating as a weapon of Italian fascism — even if he’s an ineffective one.”

Further proof of The Conformist’s many merits is how it inspired and influenced other filmmakers who have echoed, honored, and copied elements from it, including Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather II, the Pine Barrens episode of The Sopranos, and works by the Coen brothers and Steven Spielberg.

Perhaps most importantly, The Conformist is a film rippling with big ideas. The risks of blindly following or committing to a trendy movement, cause, or ideology that you can’t see with objective clarity is a thematic centerpiece. The Conformist symbolically uses the blind character of Italo and his sightless friends as a reminder that Marcello can be influenced by those who lack the foresight and vision to observe the truth or to see fascism for what it truly is. The film shows us that blind allegiance to the wrong cause, faith in bad leaders, and trying too hard to fit in at the expense of personal values can lead to regret, disillusionment, and existential crisis. Recall how Marcello unexpectedly falls in love with the professor’s wife—a woman who is his ideal and a type he has fantastized about before (as evidenced by how the prostitute resembles Anna)—yet he doesn’t follow his heart nor ultimately prevent her killing. His loyalty to Mussolini’s politics, even if it’s halfhearted and inconsistent, leads to the suffering and deaths of others.

Moreover, The Conformist explores objective reality versus subjective fantasy, as exemplified in the retelling of Plato’s cave allegory. That philosophical lesson reminds us that those who are surrounded by shadows and who don’t face the light can be fooled into believing falsities about the real world, truth, and facts. We learn that Marcello is one of these people, trusting erroneously in his flawed memories and succumbing to self-imposed pressure to adopt normality and conventionality to allay his doubts and fears and keep his past trauma buried. It isn’t until the very end of the film that Marcello internally acknowledges his error: that the valet who sexually molested him as a child whom Marcello believed he shot to death had survived, which deflates one of his motivations for becoming a fascist and trying desperately to conform to normalcy. In short, he realizes he’s been living a lie. The bars shown between him and the camera suggest that he’s now imprisoned by this harsh truth, damned to suffer for his lack of vision and lack of morals or conviction.

Vox writer Aja Romano wrote: “Throughout the film, we see Marcello deploying an ironic, cool detachment as he marches through his life; it’s this kind of passive participation without real participation that he thinks will allow him to conform without truly conforming. It’s not until the climactic final moments that he realizes, to his shock but not to ours, that this morally bankrupt approach has been built on self-deception all along.”

The famous last shot, in which Marcello turns to stare at the naked man on the other side of the bars, intimates perhaps that Marcello can free himself from his self-imposed prison of emotional repression by exploring his bisexual side.

But because Marcello is so confused throughout the story, he can be an unreliable narrator, which means we the audience can also be perplexed by his motivations. Per Andrew O’Hehir of Salon: “This movie has a profoundly damaged protagonist whose perceptions cannot be trusted. Whether the erotic triangle between Clerici, his wife, and Anna or the triangle of violence between Clerici, the professor, and Manganiello should be understood literally or as fantasy – and whether Clerici’s memories of sexual abuse reflect objective reality – is never clear within the frame of the film. Indeed, it cannot be clear in this kind of film, which is meant to illustrate a psychological and political phenomenon that is still very much with us, in which an individual surrenders his autonomy, his sense of right and wrong, and his ability to tell truth from lies, and willingly enslaves himself to a dominant ideology.”

The dangers of duality or trying to live two lives and the confusion it triggers is another major takeaway. Essayist Lucas Neumeyer posited: “There are two movies fighting for attention in The Conformist. These two stories diverge and intersect throughout the narrative creating a feeling of unbalance and confusion. One is a cold drama documenting a man’s insecurity and failures. The other can be described as a convoluted and tragic love story focusing on how uncomfortable a lonely man is around extroverted people and how lost he is confronting his own bottled-up passion. This conflict occurs in the head of a man who has ideas of self-fulfillment and happiness, but has trouble achieving them when his ambition battles with his conscience. It frames a story of inner exploration and outer isolation during a period of political turmoil and reform. It is a story that can reignite the emotional core of anyone who has felt confused for even a small portion of their lives… Marcello’s struggle to either conform to a higher power or lead an unfulfilling life is reminiscent of the classic premise of existentialism. The appeal of fascism and a higher order is a promise of prosperity and normality, but also a path of lack of responsibility.”

Lastly, ponder how effectively The Conformist conveys isolation and estrangement visually and thematically. Time and again Marcello is depicted within the frame as alone or distanced from others. We see how the swirling crowd of dancers single him out as separate from their group, we observe him frequently by himself in the backseat of a car, and we notice how he is often separated from others by glass.

Similar works

  • Reds
  • Taxi Driver
  • The Damned
  • The Night Porter
  • La Notte
  • The Seven Beauties
  • Ashes and Diamonds
  • Army of Shadows

Other films by Bernardo Bertolucci

  • Last Tango in Paris
  • 1900
  • The Last Emperor
  • The Sheltering Sky
  • Little Buddha

  © Blogger template Cumulus by 2008

Back to TOP