For my birthday this year, I bought myself a movie I had never seen before, The Conformist. I had heard of the film from a few of my “greatest movies of all time” type books. Additionally, it is considered one of the best Italian movies ever made. Though I was not a novice to Italian Cinema, it also was not something I knew well. I had heard of some of Bernardo Bertolucci’s other films, e.g., Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor, but had never seen them. Thus, I decided to take a chance to expand my scope of cinema and I bought the film. I proceeded to watch it within a few weeks of the purchase and it has become one of my favorite movies I have seen this year.
The Conformist is a 1970 Italian political drama written and directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. It tells the story of Marcello Clerici as he struggles with participating in the Fascist State’s assassination of his former teacher, Professor Quadri, an Anti-Fascist living in Paris. The movie starts with Marcello receiving a phone call from Manganiello, another Fascist agent assigned to watch over Marcello, which initiates the final murder of Quardi. The movie then proceeds through flashbacks within flashbacks that lead the viewer to the current situation.
From the flashbacks, we learn the major points within Marcello’s life that have led him to this point. We also begin to understand his struggle to conform and be a productive part of the Fascist state, which means denying his past. Marcello has no problem with the assassination it seems until he meets Anna, Quadri’s wife. After spending time with her, Marcello tries to get out of the assassination attempt, but in the end, he conforms and is responsible for both Quadri’s and Anna’s murder, representing the death of his past and desire. The movie then jumps ahead to the fall of Fascism in Italy and we see Marcello content with his family until he notices a person from his past, shattering the “normal” life he has made.
The movie is beautifully photographed by Vittorio Storaro, whose other works include Apocalypse Now and Dick Tracy. Every shot has rich colors and depth that adds to the film. In many shots, Storaro isolates Marcello in vast open spaces; the feeling of his isolation from the rest of society is palpable. In contrast, there are scenes without him where other characters are in large groups having fun. Such contrast adds to the sense of Marcello being outcast but desiring the fun that others are having. While watching it, I could not help but think how other movies like The Godfather trilogy and Miller’s Crossing were influenced by the cinematography. In fact, the movie is partially responsible for the overlap between American and Italian cinemas in the 1970s both in style and themes.
Whereas the cinematography alone makes it worth watching, I find the deeper meanings within the plot compelling as they deal with the common struggle we all face, which is deciding to conform to the normality of society or rebel and pursue our individuality. At first, I felt no connection with Marcello, especially as the plot takes place almost 80 years ago in a foreign country, but as the story unfolded, I empathized with his struggle. I understood Marcello’s desire to conform without fully agreeing with Marcello’s decision. Being accustomed to American Cinema, I was looking for a way out of the situation presented, through a twist or loophole, but in the film there eventually only becomes one choice, which is give up your past and desires to conform. Bertolucci then revels that the path of conformity we are led down is a temporary state of bliss as it can be easily overthrown much like the Fascist State. Thus, giving up our identity in the process of conformity will cause us in the end to have nothing.
Or, this is how it seems following Marcello down his path, but the viewer is provided an escape, if they look for it. The exit from the grim main path is provided by Giulia. She is very similar to Marcello; both had traumatic childhood experiences and both have a desire for Anna. While Marcello is isolated and serious, Giulia is part of the crowd and carefree. Giulia has no struggle with her past and desires like Marcello does, thus she can be part of society without conforming, leading to her happiness. Note: the story is not Giulia’s, so we are not sure of her true nature and thoughts in the same way we are of Marcello’s. Regardless, if we look hard enough for an alternative from the path we are on, we can find one looking us in the face the whole time. In essence, the message I got from the film is: be more like an important side character than struggle being a main character that needs to conform.
Favorite Scene: My favorite scene in the movie is one hardly discussed in film books and online, e.g., the tango between the wives, the train to Paris, or the assassination of Quardi in the woods. The scene I like the best is Marcello’s confession prior to getting married to Giulia. This scene is critical for the rest of the film. It sets up the back story of Marcello as a child and his desire to conform in order to be “normal.” Like many shots in the film, it is beautifully framed both with a close-up of Marcello and then a wide shot showing Giulia in a pew near him but unaware of what is going on. It is at this point that we first glimpse the similarity and differences of the two characters as they are physically close but emotionally distant. Also, like much of the movie, it transitions to a flashback seamlessly. Finally, the scene has minute humor as the priest seems wrapped up in the sin of sex instead of the more egregious sin of murder, but both become fine once Marcello states that he works for the government.
For me, I will try to be more like Giulia with no worries about conformity and do what I like. For example, writing this review as a form of nonconformity against what is expected of a chemistry professor; and in the process it has made me happy sharing it with the rest of you.
Next time, I will be reviewing Sunset Boulevard. Until then, remember Joe E. Brown’s closing line from Some Like It Hot, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”