Sunday, March 25, 2007

Review: The Conformist

Finally released on DVD in December, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 masterpiece, The Conformist, offers a fascinating character study with key themes of sexual repression, a haunting from the past, and of course, conformity. But more importantly, it closely examines the nearly-forgotten, though imitated, political ideology of fascism. With the creepy use of shadows, spacious shots and decor, Bertolucci’s artistic vision lies somewhere between Antonioni art house and a Kubrick mind-bender. Don’t be scared away by the artistic tag though; the story shines as well, along with Jean-Louis Trintignant’s fantasic portrayal of the tormented protagonist Marcello. Adapted from Alberto Moravia’s novel of the same title, The Conformist might be the finest political film ever made focusing on ideology rather than a political process.

As the movie opens, we see Marcello deep in thought while awaiting a phone call, which then reveals that he is on an assassination mission and that he has second thoughts because his intended target has an unexpected guest. Told through a series of flashbacks, we quickly learn that Marcello’s ultimate goal is conformity, a sense of feeling normal, which he lacks because of a horrific event as a child. The first flashback has Marcello explaining this desperate need to feel normal, and his plans to marry a naïve and nearly-intolerable Giulia, to his blind friend Italo. The impending marriage is Marcello’s first attempt at normalcy, but only by becoming a key component in Mussolini’s fascist machine can Marcello’s true conformity be complete. The Conformist’s political tone is set as Italo arranges this government position for Marcello, and then delivers a fascist doctrine radio address about the future comradery of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany.

Though Marcello’s relationship with Giulia never seems quite normal, we don’t learn why until he relives the childhood memory of being sexually abused at the hands of Lino, a disturbing limo driver who Marcello accidentally shoots, and assumingly kills, while handling his gun. Likewise, we don’t fully understand the impact this childhood trauma had on Marcello until he goes to confession, at the urging of Giulia, and not only glibly explains this episode to the priest, but also contemptuously describes his new government position as one who tracks down anti-fascists. Bertolucci’s twisting, non-linear narrative wastes no time in establishing the fact that Marcello’s commitment to fascism doesn’t seem to be driven by the same authoritarian, extreme nationalism and anti-liberalism attitudes as other Mussolini followers; his loyalty might be as a political opportunist.

While Italian Fascism in the 1930s represented the extreme repression of free thought in favor of xenophobia and patriotism, Paris in the 1930s represented just the opposite – the epicenter of free-expression and individualism. Knowing that Marcello and Giulia are going to honeymoon in Paris, Mussolini’s secret police hand Marcello his first assignment – to assassinate Luca Quadri, a famed anti-fascist and Italian exile now living there. Although the connection isn’t too sentimental, we learn that Professor Quadri was Marcello’s college mentor and that Marcello was once an ardent follower of a different ideology when it was fashionable. Upon arranging a meeting with Quadri, Marcello meets Anna, Quadri’s much-younger and seductive wife. Marcello is infatuated with Anna, but Anna’s sexual excitement is clearly driven by Giulia – or perhaps both Giulia and Marcello.

Closely hawked by Manganiello, his burly secret police assistant, Marcello has trouble completing his mission, probably as much because of his cowardice as his feelings for Anna, so extra agents are brought in to assure Quadri’s assassination. During his trip to Paris, Marcello never overtly diverges from the idea that the intellectual professor must be assassinated, but he seems at least willing to accept the fact that differing people and differing political philosophies can exist. The building tension finally climaxes via a final flashback as we see Marcello’s true cowardice revealed in an eerily-shadowed, snow-covered forest. But it is not until the film’s closing scene that we see Marcello yet again attempt to conform to societal standards: as the fascist regime is crumbling around him, he publicly outs his dear friend Italo as a member of Mussolini’s government and in true delusion points to his past abuser Lino as the one who actually killed Professor Quadri.

Throughout the work, it became clear that Marcello’s loyalty was indeed more than political opportunism; it served as a refuge – a hiding place – from his suppressed homosexuality, which he sees as a mental pollution. Using Marcello’s psyche to explain fascism and his sexual repression to explain conformity, Bertolucci correctly links the two together. Indeed, the totality of Wilhelm Reich’s argument, in his classic work The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), is that fascist governments and fascist economic policies are reactionary measures rooted in sexual repression. Other themes buried in The Conformist are the class struggle existent in World War II-era Europe and the inexplicable link between sex, violence, and politics. Often hailed as a visual masterpiece and one of the most influential movies of all-time because of its cinematography, The Conformist is one of the rare relatively-unknown gems that can transform the way one watches movies.