Film Contemplation: "The Conformist" (1970) Film Review
'I want to see how a dictatorship falls.'
Il Conformista or The Conformist is an inward mirror aimed at societal norms and the want of men to fit in. It marvels at the lengths to which they will go to attain it. Being different, though considered a virtue, is scoffed at. Only those that follow the herd mentality are truly accepted. In such a cold atmosphere, if you don't conform, you may have a hard time at your hands.
This is unquestionably Bertoluccis most personal film
Director Bernardo Bertolucchi's feature film, based on 1951's eponymous novel, is yet another one of his politically charged satires that question the institutions, the established orders and most of all, the motives of men in power. However, the film lacks the grandiose of his much celebrated The Last Emperor, a three hours plus historical drama that bared open the power struggle caused by transition from Chinese monarchy to democratic-cum-militariship. It also lacks the character depth and turmoil of his much divisive 1900 , a five hour and 20 minute long magnum opus that centred on class struggle during fascist Italy. It would be a tall task comparing these fine works with any directors filmography. In that sense, it should also be noted that this film came out much earlier than those two. There should be no question, however, that The Conformist is his most personal film.
It is easier to foresee that all three facets will overlap in some way leading to a volcanic turmoil for the Clerici.
The film also has many similarities to the aforementioned 1900, as this one is also based in Mussolini's fascism gripped Italy. Both of them adopt non-linear narratives; both begin in the present and then travel in the past through long flashbacks. Both involve long time jumps that takes the narration forward. But most of all both films involve men who bear the brunt of a society that differentiates based on class, creed and religion among other things. Both involve men who believe killing someone who deviates is an honour needed to be done for his motherland.
This one is centred on a man named Dottore Marcello Clerici. The film focuses on three important facets of his life. The first one is romantic alliance with Guilia, whom he intends to marry because she offers him a chance at normal life. The second one is his friendship with Italo Montanari, a man he shares a close bond with due to their similar political views and their socially awkward behavior. The third, and the one which occupies the most screen time, is his professional commitment to a secret organization where he works as a spy for the supreme authority. Their organization wants to suppress those opposing anti-Semitic wave and will not tolerate dissent. It is easier to foresee that all three will overlap in some way leading to a volcanic turmoil for the Clerici. He is tasked with assassinating professor Quadri, a leftist exiling in Paris, who had once taken a shine on Clerici during his college days. Clerici decides to honeymoon there with the ulterior motive of completing the job.
Italo mentions in a scene that a normal man is a true brother, a true citizen and a true patriot. Pat comes Clerici's reply that it means being a true fascist.
Marcello's life is based on a lie. A chance encounter with a chauffeur named Lino leads to a tragic accident. Here, Bertolucci remotely explores the themes of homosexuality and indiscipline. This incident has such a negative effect on the man that he decides to change his outlook entirely and live a life that is acceptable by others. Such a drastic step expectedly causes a psychic strain on him. He adopts the pervasive ideology of the time irrespective of his own discomfort for the same. He may have a bohemian soul but wishes to settle down because that is what people do. He is an atheist but agrees for a confession so as to satisfy his fiancé's traditional Roman Catholic parents. So while he climbs the steps of the social order his humanity witnesses a moral downfall. Italo mentions in a scene that a normal man is a true brother, a true citizen and a true patriot. Pat comes Clerici's reply that it means being a true fascist. Needless to say all the focal characters here are injected with their part in the sect. Even Guila for that matter plays the societal part when she mentions knowing about his secret activities but not caring about the same since she is 'a loving wife.'
Jean-Louis Trintignant has completely immersed himself as the protagonist. His long contemplating stares will stay with you even after the end credits roll. Stefania Sandrelli as Guila manages to shine even in the confinement if her role. Gastone Moschin as the agent Manganiello is unpredictable as he switches from comic relief and stern silences in ensuing scenes. Dominique Sanda as the young Mrs. Quadri is a bit of a disappointment here knowing fully her calibre. She had held her own against stalwarts like Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu in 1900 and with the benefit of retrospection this role doesn't do her full justice. Jose Quaglio as his blind friend Italo his affable and exudes warmth. It highlights how even simple souls may end up supporting something as tormenting as fascism.
More than anything else, The Conformist should be regarded as a glimpse of what was to come ahead from the talented Bertolucci. Many shots in the film are done with utmost beauty that you can only laud the man at the helm. The rainy scene between Clerici and Manganiello in the car objectively has a viper on the windshield acting like a wedge between them that intends to highlight the difference in the natures and deliberations of the two men. The scene towards the end between the married couple with one standing in the room and the other in hallway highlights the distance in their relationship. Clerici's outrage for his repressed sexuality is also esthetically shot. Even the scene in Paris between the two wives at the dance hall is rich and hints at lesbian awakenings. The scene where supporters of the newly elected democratic leader sweep the fascist supporter Italo with them is another highlight and so is Clerici's reunion scene with Professor Quadri. Vittorio Storaro elevates the film with his magnificent cinematography.
Compared to his other films it is a bit strange that the running time of this one is less than two hours considering the potential of the source material. The narrative may disappoint a bit due to its lack of urgency or stress but the astute direction towers above everything in the movie and it is a visual treat. Fans of his work or even aficionados of thinking cinema will not be disappointed with this offering.
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