Continuing my delve into the extensive collection of films on the BFFS Collection I recently watched The Conformist, Bertolucci’s pre-WWII set thriller. The film centres on a weak-willed agent of the Mussolini government who is sent to France to assassinate a political dissident. Though vaguely aware of the film and its reputation beforehand I was nonetheless awed by this tremendous film.
The Conformist | Bernardo Bertolucci |1970 | Italy, France, W. Germany | 111 min | 15
Marcello Clerici is a cowardly and conflicted fascist agent who is tasked with travelling across the border to Paris where he is to assassinate a political dissident who also happens to have been one of Clerici’s lecturers at university. Clerici accepts the mission but we can see that he is tormented by his desire to conform and his competing ideals – it is clear that he harbours no real sympathy towards the fascist movement but is motivated to do almost anything for the Mussolini government in order to avoid estrangement or rejection from wider society.
Clerici’s cover for his trip to France is a honeymoon with his new wife Guilia, a shallow and uncomplicated woman who stands in stark contrast to the professor’s girlfriend Anna – a lively, intelligent and manipulative character whose motivations are draped in ambiguity.
When Clerici catches up with the professor in Paris he is reminded of the free-thinking days of student life and Quadri argues that Clerici has become blinded by his devotion to the government. Though Clerici spurns the professors argument they proceed to spend the following days together and Clerici’s failure to act is noticed by Maganiello, a fellow agent sent to act as a trigger man for Clerici but also to ensure that Clerici doesn’t step out of line.
During the time spent with the professor Clerici becomes increasingly drawn towards Anna and impatient towards his wife. Clerici seems perpetually frustrated by Guilia and his only attraction towards her seems to be sexual and yet she lives just the kind of normal, socially acceptable and unexciting life that he ostensibly seems to desire. His barely disguised resentment towards her naive attitudes and simple-mindedness betrays his own dissatisfaction at conformity and reveals the central conflict that pulls Clerici in opposing directions and stupefies him into indecision and hesitation. At times he is rash and bold, a commanding presence – such as when he orders the death of his mother’s servant, but a lot of the time he is frozen by doubts. He spends days befriending the professor and his girlfriend without coming to any decision as to whether or not he will go through with his mission. This hesitation does nothing to diminish an underlying tension that runs throughout the film for the film’s narrative is punctuated with flash-forwards showing Clerici and Maganiello racing through a snowy landscape attempting to find ‘her’.
The Conformist‘s visual style is sublime thanks to extraordinary cinematography and production design courtesy of Vittorio Storaro and Ferdinando Scarfiotti respectively. The Conformist authentically recreates the 1930’s/40s setting but subverts this with an unusual colour palette and ingenious framing and direction that at times borders on the surreal. Whole scenes are tinged blue or red while decrepit mansions and the tremendous scale of Rome’s fascist architecture skew perception and dwarfs Clerici. There is a bravura to the camerawork that is startling and such ambitious shots emphasis rather than distract from the characters and themes of the film. For example; an overhead crane shot at the end of an exquisitely staged dance shows Clerici rigid amongst a whirl of gaiety and joy – underlining his isolation and sadness. Later a chase sequence is filmed with a mixture of wide-angle tracking shots and claustrophobic handheld sequences that is as exciting as it is menacing.
The psychological effects of fascism is an underlying theme of The Conformist and Clerici is an unexceptional person condemned by circumstance and fear to commit despicable crimes. Bertolucci’s framing of the scenes within the governmental offices emphasis the grand imposing architecture compared to which Clerici is an insignificant creature walking its halls. For the most part he does not have to operate on his own initiative and is passed from contact to contact following directions, nothing more than a pawn of more powerful men – it is only when faced with the actual act that he baulks.
An extraordinary visual and narrative achievement The Conformist stands as a timeless piece of filmmaking that has justifiably earned its place in the history of cinema.