The Conformist (1970)

Bernardo Bertolucci | 1hr 51min

Bernardo Bertolucci’s carefully-curated geometric shapes and patterns of The Conformist construct an expressive yet inflexible world around Marcello Clerici, a man who seems to shift and meld to whatever his environment requires of him. Is he a fascist? An anti-fascist? Does it matter? Well, only insofar as it gives him social credit, even if it means taking out an old acquaintance should his superiors call for it. We keep returning to parallel tracking shots that follow him along unbending corridors in immaculately designed tableaux of wartime Europe, its sharp angles and lines as equally unyielding as the dogmatic socio-political landscape they make up.

One of the greatest characters of the 1970s – an empty, spineless man with no integrity, shifting his loyalties to whoever is in power at any given time.
More than just tremendous production design, The Conformist is a showcase of avant-garde camerawork, throwing Clerici’s world off with these canted angles.

Clerici strikes a respectable figure in his suit and fedora as he walks through this world’s monochrome architecture, and yet there is also something slightly off about his appearance. Perhaps it is the leather gloves he so often wears, as if to suggest a penchant for erasing traces of old loyalties whenever there is a change of guard. Being a man of little substance, he prefers not to handle these matters directly.
Much of The Conformist consists of flashbacks conjured up in Clerici’s drive to a secluded destination, where he is expected to assassinate Professor Quadri, a teacher with leftist ideals who he associated with at college. For much of this present-day plot thread, there is little that actually happens. Instead, the frequent cutting to memories of how he ended up here seems to slow down time, prolonging his dread over the murder that waits for him down the road.

This forest scene is one of the most beautiful sequences in a film brimming with them. Very deliberately spiritual in the lighting, like a blessing upon Clerici’s cowardly crime – Bertolucci is unforgiving in his pointed social critique.

Clerici’s earliest recollection is one of seemingly killing his family’s chauffeur, Lino, after the man molests him and suggestively lays a pistol between his legs, a merging of sex and violence. Indeed, this is the appeal of fascism within The Conformist, allowing its followers to indulge in their most perverse impulses, while injecting a heavy dose of shame into the mix, allowing for easy manipulation. Pistols continue to appear throughout the film, often in Clerici’s hands as pitiful demonstrations of masculine power, though both times we expect him to kill someone with them, Bertolucci subverts the outcome. By the end, the only deaths Clerici is responsible for are those which he sits back and watches unfold, his pathetic inaction eventually leading to the assassination of his own mistress.

Tying fascist regimes to religious and sexual imagery in magnificently austere tableaux like this.
The Conformist is filled with decade-defining set design, but it is also Bertolucci’s lighting which makes this feel so daunting.

Though he moves between ideologies without conviction, Clerici finds himself especially at home within the fascist regime of Italy, and it isn’t heard to see why. Quadri draws a line between Plato’s allegory of the cave and the hollow baselessness of totalitarianism, whose followers show a lack of interest in the world around them much like the figurative cave-dwellers that believe that the shadows they see on the wall make up all of existence. When the illusion eventually dissipates Clerici is left a raving madman on the streets of Italy, proclaiming whatever incendiary statements might bring him into the folds of this new society.
There is a soothing indigo hue that Bertolucci often washes over his day-for-night exteriors, tempering the black-and-white palette that otherwise dominates his architectural and costume designs. Its effect is softening, perhaps even a little romanticising, but the gorgeous, noir-tinted austerity of The Conformist continues to come out on top, forcing Clerici along fixed paths and into rigid boxes. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call this one of the great defining achievements of mise-en-scene in cinema history, though the incisiveness with which Bertolucci tears into unthinking fascist ideologies also lends this imagery an extra edge of bitter resentment.

These soft day-for-night exteriors are a nice counter to the black-and-white palettes elsewhere.
Always such an attention to the background in these gorgeous shots, constructing a rich political and historical environment.

The Conformist is available to rent or buy on iTunes.


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