Slaughter and melancholy.
At one point towards the end of Bernardo Bertolucci‘s Il conformist [The Conformist], Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) turns to Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) and relays a brief synopsis of a dream. He talks about how he was a blind man who needed an operation that only his former professor (Enzo Tarascio‘s Quadri) could perform. The procedure is a success and ultimately he’s left with the doctor’s wife (Dominique Sanda‘s Anna) in his arms. This scene is perhaps two minutes long and yet proves to be the key to Clerici’s psychology and desires. Here is a man being led down a path he does not want to follow despite believing he must. Only his enemy can talk sense into him and only with that sense can he hope to survive.
Reality shows Marcello isn’t physically blind, but morally so. He lives in Italy on the cusp of World War II and has watched those he respected abruptly leave in exile. Alone with his severity and tragic past, he despises the fact he’s different than those left behind to languish under Benito Mussolini’s reign. So he decides to follow the old adage, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” Once a prized pupil of Quadri’s anti-fascist professor, Clerici now finds himself running down a path to become everything his role model wasn’t. He takes his blind friend Italo’s (José Quaglio) offer to join the secret police—to join the Italy that remained in order to continue embracing it as his home. Italy is fascist and so too must he.
But that’s not the only concession on his quest for a warped sense of place and normalcy. He decides he must also take a wife (Stefania Sandrelli‘s Giulia), a process of which plays more academic than emotional. Clerici mechanically chooses a woman who by all accounts fits the rubric for being the perfect spouse. Every action taken is therefore one that brings him closer to this idyllic life wherein he is both husband and patriot—the perfect Italian within a very imperfect Italy. It isn’t fear that drives him as much as alienation. He’s an atheist incapable of remorse and a sexually confused creature who’s repressed many demons in his thirty-four years on Earth. He yearns for purpose, a model to follow. Individuality has long been stripped away.
And Bertolucci—by way of Alberto Moravia‘s novel—introduces us to this on-edge character as he faces the cliff and thus the choice to back away or jump. It’s the morning of his assignment where the film begins, the morning he’s supposed to assassinate Quadri in fascism’s name. Clerici is shrouded in red, his anxiety seeming to have kept him awake all night. The phone rings and he incredulously replies, “She’s gone too?” Without context he springs to attention and gets dressed, his exit the first time we realize he wasn’t alone. But the naked woman left under the covers is just as anonymous as the one he worried about on the phone. Soon Marcello gets in the backseat of Manganiello’s car and the two drive away.
It’s this car ride where Clerici starts to remember the decades-long journey he took to get to this stretch of Parisian countryside. Context is thus gleaned in the memories of dinner with Giulia and her mother, his pre-marital confession in church, conversations with Italo about the fascists, a childhood nightmare, and the complex relationships formed between him, his wife, Quadri, and Anna. We go back and forth between the interior of Manganiello’s vehicle and these interludes of distant past and a past only one day old. The reds become blue, Marcello’s anxiety transfers to us as new characters recall others, and politics shed their abstract origins in order to remind this lost soul that he has the power to take a stand. He can change his mind.
The Conformist quickly becomes a surreal nightmare made more confusing by the fact it never overtly spills into fantasy. Everything we see could be true, our eyes deceiving us only because we got caught up in the mystery of which we’re never certain of the details. Did Clerici really have Quadri as his professor or was it all a ruse to get close? Did he love Giulia or was she a means to an end for his domestic image and/or a cover story for the murder he is tasked to perform? Have we seen Anna before she opens the door to her husband’s office or is Marcello’s mind playing tricks on him and therefore us in turn? The only thing we’re absolutely sure of is Clerici’s trepidation.
He’s a man devoid of identity—or at least one that isn’t steeped in self-loathing. Marcello is a shell with nothing but the words of others driving him. He cannot bear standing alone and thus sells his ideology and morals to the faction with the most power. He’s a leech affixing himself on the winning horse until it loses, jumping from one to the next to feel useful and included. This is the epitome of fascism and how it grows so rampantly out of a blind allegiance to self-preservation. And while we aren’t all Nazis, no one can truly say they haven’t fallen prey to the allure of fitting in. Maybe you laughed at a friend because the cool kids were or fashioned your politics on your parents’.
This is how movements such as “punk” and “goth” become mainstream and thus subversions of themselves. It’s how our drive to be unique ultimately ensures our homogeneity. So we focus on those traits we cannot change in order to turn that sameness into strength rather than weakness. Slavery is formed. Genocides are wrought. Peace and equality become dirty words meant to usurp power rather than cement it. As the present unfortunately shows us through our inability to learn from past mistakes, this is humanity. We are malleable and greedy, opportunistic and shallow. We take more credence in what others are saying than in that which we feel inside. We’re driven to become everything we hate because such an existence is easier—and possibly more prosperous—than the alternative.
Marcello is therefore a cautionary tale. We watch his mind wrestle itself: obsolescence versus infamy. The hope of finding love and purpose becomes so futile that he resigns himself to creating a façade instead. And when an authentic form of both does arrive, he unravels at the seams because he’s gone too far to stop without consequences. This is when his dream manufactures a happily ever after wherein reason and compassion prevail. As so many know, however, life is anything but fairy tale. Doing the right thing when it’s literally in grasp still means taking a risk to stand against the status quo. And just as the world was imploding around Clerici, it’s also crumbling today. Will you cowardly watch it burn or rise to suffocate the flames?