Nobody would want to be called a ‘Fascist’. Unless, of course, you’re living in 1930’s Italy: the world of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970). The film follows a man: an aspiring Fascist operative, Marcello, on his way to assassinate his former professor, a political exile in Paris. On the way, through a series of complex interweaving flashbacks, we see a number of Marcello’s close relationships in development: most prominently, his marriage to Giulia that provides (in a honeymoon) a coverup for his trip to Paris, and the promise of ‘normality’. Yet The Conformist presents normality as alienation as it follows this strange and driven protagonist. We twice see Marcello against a crowd, dancing or marching – and both times he is exposed by the tide of the people. Confused and alone, he is shown up for his individual obscurity in the tangible mass of men, women and children that make up a society.
Fascism preached that the individual gains his or her sense of identity through state-sanctioned culture: a common, and not a unique or pluralistic self. In his journey, Marcello comes in contact with a range of ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’ (as Althusser termed them), and in each case finds himself at odds with them. His family is dysfunctional: his mother addicted to morphine and his father in an asylum. His visit to the Priest results in a disillusioned short-circuiting of the reasons and morality of the hollow absolution given there. As he speaks to his former professor for the first time, we learn of Marcello’s promising progress as a student, and his failure to follow his thesis after his professor left the college. Breaking through the veneer of each of these institutions is a powerful combination of sex and death, which for Marcello are linked by a vividly remembered childhood experience. As a boy, he was rescued from molestation at the hands of his peers by a chauffeur, with whom he began to have a sexual encounter – cut short by Marcello flying into a rage, shooting bullets into the walls and the chauffeur.
The Conformist is visually, a landmark. Filmed with the assistance of the brilliant cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now), it contains some of the most beautifully composed scenes I can remember, from any film. Light crosses the glorious, spare halls of the Fascist bureaucracy, the fashionably furnished homes of the elite and the dreamlike woodland roads. So often, light travels in diagonal lines: through shutters, or breaking through treetops. Angled like a scalpel, it moves and crosses the beautiful, bust-like faces of the characters, challenging their hopes for order or fixity. Yellow lines illuminate particles of dust in their brief suspension in the air: the transience of the world which Marcello seeks to build and live within.
The film closes after the fall of Mussolini, as Marcello travels into the city, ‘to see how a dictatorship falls’, as he says. With his blind friend Italo, he walks among beggars: one of which he recognises as the chauffeur who he thought he had killed as a boy. In a panic, he shouts out, accusing the chauffeur of homosexuality and the murder of the professor, and his friend Italo of being a Fascist. The paradox of Fascist dictatorship is echoed in Marcello’s deflection of blame: a state that sanctioned the bounds of identity attempts – with futility – to relieve the self of the burden of the responsibility for personal choice. The film’s final scene carries echoes of St Peter’s moment of accountability during the trial of Christ. At the dawn of the new era of an anti-establishment gospel, Peter committed the sin of trying to pass on his personal responsibility and his dangerous identity. The Conformist leaves us with Marcello considering the gravity of his betrayal: alone in a new world.
Against Marcello’s individualism, the beautiful enacting of the dance is the hope of the film. Giulia and the professor’s wife, Anna, dance together, with the crowd around them, in a wonderfully free and socially redemptive scene. Joining hands, the crowd move around the square room, a joy that can last, at least, for the night.