This is the first Bernardo Bertolucci film I’ve ever seen, though probably not the first title my brain would once have associated with him–of course, at the same time, my brain had also never put together Bertolucci who did Last Tango in Paris with Bertolucci who did The Last Emperor and so on–simply because I never thought of all the movies at the same time (such is often the case when I’ve never seen any work from a director). From the cover art and vaguely drawn associations, I was expecting something akin to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, which was helped along by authentic 1930s costuming (recalling the smart fedora of Alain Delon’s Jef) and a passing resemblance (likely helped itself by costuming) to Jef in star Jean-Louis Trintignant. I ended up seeing something entirely different, though, and pleasing in an entirely different way.
Marcello Clerici (Trintignant) is a man in 1930s Italy, then under the control of Fascism and its Italian leader Benito Mussolini. He discusses his marriage plans with his blind friend Italo (José Quaglio), who chuckles at Clerici’s motivations, based around his pursuit of “normality.” His future wife is Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), a middle class woman who comes from a very “average” background, her mother wondering what the upper class Clerici could see in her. But marriage is not Clerici’s only avenue in his pursuit–he also strives for political normality, by becoming a Fascist, there assigned the job of pursuing Anti-Fascists through contact Manganiello (Gastone Mochin). His assignment is Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), formerly his own professor. After going through his first Catholic confession in fifteen years (into which he was argued by his fiancée and her mother), wherein we learn of his youthful abuse for his family’s money–of which he is ashamed, we learn, when he first meets Manganiello at his family’s decaying villa, where his morphine-addicted mother does little beyond sleep with her own chaffeur–and the near-abuse suffered at the hands of his saviour from said abuse, whom he fires upon and leaves to die, we see some idea of what has driven him to his current pursuit and occupation. He goes to meet Quadri, who is protected by his wife Anna (Dominique Sanda), who Clerici finds alluring. It’s then a “cat and mouse” game, not between characters, but between Clerici’s desire to be “normal” and his internal moral repulsion at what is asked of him to achieve it.
The first and most important of thing in this movie, no offense to any of the actors involved, is the unbelievable cinematography and framing put together by Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro. It’s lush and deep and gorgeous, colours carefully meted out, constructed, separated and arranged in every frame, but this is done with lighting and framing and placement, obvious and yet hidden–we can tell things are placed, but nothing feels unnatural at the same time, so it’s only distracting by virtue of the fact that it isn’t. Fluid camera movements follow action, even if it is a simple transfer of focus from character to character and not a character moving with the frame, and are intrinsically visually pleasing in and of themselves, the movement only becoming ragged when in pursuit of foot-propelled assassins pursuing a target, appropriately and yet still seeming perfectly controlled. Crepuscular rays of sunlight (known in the gaming world, for instance as “God Rays”) shine through a snow-covered forest, contrasting natural beauty with the miniscule, petty, vicious actions of man in the foreground, but not to contrast nature and humanity so much as to use that contrast to enhance the repugnant nature of the acts taking place.
The Conformist is one of those relatively metaphorical films that leaves me both a bit worried and relatively confident–I feel like I’ve got what the filmmakers were trying to say, but worried that I missed something that changes it all. Generally I wander around and find that if I’m wrong, I’m at least in the majority, and that what I missed only enhances the meaning I’d taken, rather than contradicting or changing it. Clearly Bertolucci (from Alberto Moravia’s novel) is shining a harsh light on Fascism, but moreso on the weakness of those who would endorse it without conviction (bringing to mind the old Italian man in Heller’s Catch-22). I’ve seen many reviews, synposes and comments refer to Clerici as “weak-willed,” but I think my words in response to that would be quite thoroughly impolite, referring to what is generally left behind in the street in a town that still has horse-drawn carts. Clerici is not weak-willed, nor is he a full-fledged coward, at the very least in the way that Trintignant potrays him. He is morally weak, ethically weak, philosophically weak–but his will is really rather strong. He pursues his ideal of “normality” almost up to murder–a pretty fair bit of will, and a not-surprising amount unmanaged. He’s a coward only when it comes to murder, in that he will neither pursue his ideal to that extent, nor speak out against it. He’s not stupid, either, for he understands, when he talks to Quadri of Plato’s cave, that the people of Italy are the people in Plato’s cave. He makes a choice to follow the flow of the country’s politics despite his awareness of their contradiction of what is clearly his own internal morality–he sneers incredulously when the priest he confesses to suggests that his homosexual encounter–being less-than-consensual, though perhaps at least partly that–the most grave, despite his admission to guilt of murder, and he finds himself unable to murder anyone after that. This is definitely weakness, but it is not weakness of will. Meursault in L’Étranger was a man of weak will, simply doing things with little mind of his own. Clerici pursues his goal, which takes will. This doesn’t make him perfectly likable, but at least relatively sympathetic, especially as we can see he has reason–whether we think it sufficient or not–to take on such an aim. And of course it is not the normality itself that he wants–he wants the security he feels will naturally follow, and who cannot sympathize with desiring security? Some reject safety, but few reject security–at the least, security of the mind, if not the complete ability to respond to life as one sees fit and not worry about engendering the wrath of those around.
It’s a beautiful film, though, and one that has a clear intention–condemnation of the rejection of personal morality in exchange for the safety of the average and the unnoticed, of choosing the latter over the former almost without exception, even if the details of exactly how, who and why these things are seen in the film are not universally agreed upon (at least, insofar as I can tell).