Freud mixes with politics in Bertolucci’s stunning political-psychological thriller, one of the greatest films ever made
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant (Marcello Clerici), Stefania Sandrelli (Guilia), Dominique Sanda (Anna Quadri/Minister’s Lover/Prostitute), Gastone Moschin (Manganiello), Enzo Tarascio (Professor Luca Quadri), Fosco Giachetti (Colonel), José Quaglio (Italo Montanari), Pierre Clémenti (Lino Semirama), Yvonne Sanson (Guila’s mother), Milly (Marcello’s mother)
At age 29, Bertolucci made one of the greatest films of the 20th century. The Conformist is a film of uncertain illusions, half-seen shadows dancing on the wall of a cave. Each viewing unfolds new perspectives and interpretations. But each is rewarding, such is the magisterial grace the story is told with, and the radiant beauty of the film itself (a clear, massive, visible influence on Coppola’s Godfather films).
In 1938, a young Fascist Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is commissioned by Mussolini’s government to arrange the assassination of his former philosophy professor, dissident intellectual Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) in Paris. Marcello longs for a “normal life”, obsessed with the fear that personal flaws, rooted in childhood trauma, will expose him. He marries the unexpected woman – the garrulous and ingenuous Guilia (a superb, guileless Stefania Sandrelli) – and joins the Fascists. But he is shaken by his fascination with Quadri’s wife Anna (Dominique Sanda).
Bertolucci’s film is nominally a political thriller. It exposes the brutality of fascism, but its alleged heroes are ineffective, bourgeoise left-wing dissidents. But really this is a Freudian deep dive into the character of Marcello and how he has sought to “conform” his whole life.
The Conformist is like sitting in on a prolonged psychotherapy session, Marcello’s past, present and future stripped down to their components, with the viewer invited to theorise how they assembled in the way they have. The film’s non-linear structure is crucial for this – and Bertolucci was vocal on the vital wisdom of editor Franco Arcalli. The narrative was reconstructed around the day of the assassination and Marcello’s car journey to it – with flashbacks inspired by events along the way.
The film is a revue of Marcello remembering his recruitment, the days before his marriage and the childhood trauma of sexual awakening and murder that haunts his inner fears. Most of all we see unspool the events that directly brought him to sitting in this car, on this day, driving towards the site of an assassination. These component parts shift and rearrange themselves to form new patterns about how we understand Marcello and the choices he makes.
The film’s theological pivot is Marcello and Quadri’s discussion of Plato’s cave (read about it here), where men chained in a cave understand the world only from the shadows of objects outside which they watch on its walls. But there are no easy conclusions. Are the fascists the chained men? Or has Marcello chained himself away and only interprets the world through shadows? Is Marcello so disjointed he can only interpret emotions based on his understanding of shadows of them?
Or is this pushing us to consider we are watching a film: a thing made of light and shadows. Imagery constantly reminds us of this fact. Light streams through trees, pillars and windows like light from a projector. Views outside of train windows resemble back projection. Marcello watches a radio performance from a recording booth, the window of which literally resembles a cinema screen. Constructed realities are the language of this medium – and Marcello is perhaps applying the same phraseology to his life. He builds a narrative, just as we all do, making himself bland and forgettable.
Marcello dreads the discovery not only of his crime, as a 13-year-old, of shooting and killing a seductive chauffer (played by Pierre Clémenti), but also the sexual longing it awakened in him. This horror of homosexual yearnings – and fear at being caught for murder – has, perhaps, led to a reflexive desire to hide in the crowd: to conform. Understanding this leads to us seeing Marcello, for all his coldness, as a strangely tragic, repressed figure, hiding from himself and others. His face is often obscured, or seen behind glass and mirrors. He’s always slightly distant from us.
This void is beautifully captured in Trintignant’s compelling performance. He bottles genuine emotions within himself, that at rare moments are released like small explosions. He clings to a hat that hides his face and seems barely aware of his desires. Sensuality and nakedness fascinate and alarm him. Fascism is a large, empty illusion he clings to. In the film’s only touch of heavy-handedness Italo, who recruits him, is blind. You feel something for Marcello, but are also repelled by his studied artificiality. His whole life is a carefully framed pose, like those he strikes when handed a gun before stroking his hair (a repeated gesture) and running off to find his hat.
The one thing that seems to affect him is the fascination – attraction seems too strong a word – he feels for Anna Quadri. Laying the groundwork for the sudden impact she has on Marcello, Dominique Sanda appears twice earlier as unconnected characters (both prostitutes). Anna, smart, bisexual, knowing herself and others far more than anyone else, sees straight through Marcello. How much is her seduction of Guilia an attempt to titillate and neutralise Marcello? At one point, she seductively touches the laughing Guilia, while staring at the door where Marcello (and the camera) stand in the shadows, knowing he is watching. Does Marcello long for her sexually, spiritually or because it feels like he should do? Answers are myriad.
These are expanded by the constructed beauty of Storaro’s photography. Bertolucci’s mastery of camera movements is clear (there are tracking shots of breathtaking grace, including a long drift along wind-blown leaves that Coppola outright pinched) and he knows when to use angles that unsettle (including a Dutch angle that suddenly, stunningly rights itself) or feel voyeuristic. Storaro’s shoots with ravishing beauty that subtly colour codes emotions, moods and locations and stresses the constructed nature of film narratives.
Italy is a land of imperious, grandiose Fascist architecture: towering modernist rooms, cold marble and neo-classicism, shot with whites and striking starkness. Paris is awash in softer – but also cold and damaging – blues that feel more natural but unsettling. Moments where Marcello touches on his longings (or at least persuades himself he does) drip with yellows. It looks gorgeous, but also fits with themes of invented kaleidoscopes, being re-shaken to construct a world.
The film builds towards a scene of genuine horror. The assassination is a bleak nightmare in the snow. You can never forget the image of Sanda – her face contorted with panic, desperation and hate – clawing and screaming at the window of Marcello’s car while he just sits. Is he torn between indecision and fear, or does he feel nothing? Your ideas will change, but your horror at Anna’s desperate, hand-held-shot, futile flight through the woods like a deer pursued by hounds never will.
The film’s final coda re-opens mysteries. Marcello discovers things that make him question if his life of conformity (and the price he has paid for it) was even necessary. The final shot sees him sitting, a flame behind him, starring at a wall (of course!) before turning to – well to look at us? Or is he looking, at last, at the world he has only studied from it shadows? It’s unclear. Deliberately so.
What’s clear is that The Conformist is crammed with truly extraordinary images (from that haunting assassination to a beautiful Brueghelesque late-night dance between Anna and Guilia, everything sticks with you) and challenging ideas that carry no easy answers. Bertolucci’s film invites deep examination and analysis and presents possible suggestions, but no answers. It’s what makes it an extraordinary classic, a fascinating study of psychology and humanity.