Oct/Nov 2003 Film and Cinema

Poetry in Translation: The Zealousness of Bertolucci's The Conformist

Review by Mostafa Hefny

Pity the audience of this great film. Pity its most reverent admirers. They drink from the mirage as if it were holy water. For the doting cineaste, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970) is the cinematic wet dream; here the image is paramount, everything else secondary. The camera glides, tracks, tilts, rises and falls in decadence, shadows, violence, darkness, lust, radiance, guilt and streaks of light. This is cinematic art in its purest form. The subject, our desire and willingness to belong to a cruel social order, our tragic hypocrisy, is of great worth. Bertolucci, then in his early twenties, was just the type of immodest filmmaker to approach such an undertaking with the hunger it deserves. Until recently, I thought that this the only type of film worth seeing: the operatic and the ambitious. Cinema that does not shy away from the grand quests that have reduced the elder, wiser artists to filming particulars. It is great film because Bertolucci and his virtuoso cinematographer Vittorio Storaro manage to imbue their story with a tonal association, adjacent to the script yet somehow an indivisible component. In The Conformist, which is the most vigorously directed film I've seen since Citizen Kane, the grand quest is a success. The elements of film coalesce the story, and the careful ideology and psychology that govern it, into a complete, perfect form. It is a masterpiece. I understand that. But I can't feel it.

Perhaps it's Freud, whose theories of repression, aggression, Oedipal conflict, impotence and rage so dominate The Conformist that the picture seems to have been filmed as a psychiatric dissertation. This is evident in the opening scene where a yet to be identified man, post-coital but in shirt and pants, sits nervously on the bed. The woman, so completely objectified we suspect she maybe a corpse, lies naked face down next to him. Without turning to her, Marcello Clerici (Jean Louis Trintignant), stares morosely into space, waiting, unsatisfied. The phone rings; it's a superior. Less than overjoyed (Trintigant never expresses joy), but evidently relieved, he answers what seems to be an unambiguous order. It's too early for a diagnosis, but this is a film to be contemplated, not savored, a specimen rather than an experience. Thus the inevitable second viewing could lead the eager interpreter to the following diagnosis: the man, a fountainhead of contained ignominy, has crashed into yet another wall in his quest for normalcy. The explicit, promiscuous heterosexuality of his adult life has failed to atone his original sin: a childhood's momentary acceptance of a molester's proposition of sodomy. That proposition, seen in flashback, ends with the thirteen-year-old protagonist murdering his chauffer, the molester. Marcello is killer and homosexual, sins whose gravities are transposed by the prevailing religious doctrine.

The catch is that Marcello is an intelligent man. In a nihilistic but masochistically monotone confession to a scandalized priest, he admits to the murder of the chauffer. The priest, unimpressed with the murder, persists in asking about his sexual orientation. "You seem to think that homosexuality is a bigger sin than murder," quips Marcello, probably correctly. His uniqueness, a basic human decency dictating that of murder and homosexuality only the former is the crime, is his reviled encumbrance. "I am going to atone for a sin with an even bigger one," cries Marcello. "I am going to construct my own normalcy." By making his protagonist understand the perversity of his own logic, Bertolucci refuses to let Freudian shorthand exonerate his actions.

The Conformist is the story of that "construction." It is very much a film of two halves. The first, clinical half is a psychological sketch of the protagonist. Here no scene is simply allowed to be, everything is underlined and diagnosed. When Marcello visits his friend Italo (Jose Quaglio), a blind man who sincerely reads Fascist propaganda in Braille on the radio, Bertolucci introduces a recurring visual motif. Whilst his camera observes the restless Marcello talking to his friend, the background is split in two juxtaposed halves. As Marcello awaits his first interview with a Fascist recruiter, he talks to his blind friend whilst moving from the dark half of the screen to the light and back. This is pictorial demonstration of his psychological duality. When he walks into the government headquarters to receive his orders, the setting is that of an Orwellian dystopia: a large angular desk sits in a vast, endless white space. Fascism, Bertolucci implies (or rather dictates, he doesn't imply much), is the blank sheet on which Clerci can redefine himself as a pillar of this amoral society. Later, when Marcello visits his father, a fellow conformist and murderer, at a mental institution, the background is also a vast white space, but this time it is a prison. The calculated opportunism of conformity, Bertolucci is saying, would so eradicate the soul that one becomes a prisoner of the mind... You can see where this is going. In fact every sequence but one (Marcello's visit to his hoarse-voiced mother's unkempt mansion, where the baroque decadence overwhelms Bertolucci's unremitting annotations) comes with such elaborate footnoting. In the first half, the viewer is too busy interpreting the images to be in awe of them.

That Bertolucci is a brilliant translator of ideas into images is not at question here. It is that he is too good. Whilst lesser filmmakers are forced to give their protagonist sympathetic attributes, an emotional path to their message, Bertolucci has no need of such manipulations. But he still needs to satisfy a coherent plot. This is why the second half of the film, the manifestation rather than the description of Marcello's pathological quest for normalcy, is infinitely more watchable.

Having accepted the mission to murder his old exiled college professor in Paris, Marcello decides to combine the mission with his honeymoon. The bride is an air-headed "petty bourgeois" as he himself describes Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli). The marriage and the murder are equally valuable paradigms of his pretend value system. If it only weren't for his innate knowledge of his own duplicity, both these goals would be easily achievable. But Bertolucci has burdened Marcello with intelligence, and the burden diminishes his performance. When Marcello's deceit gets him a face to face meeting with his old professor, the pupil evokes Plato's cave, the allegory of men having spent their entire lives watching shadows of reality, who claim that reality is the shadow and their shadows reality when they are finally confronted with the truth. Their perception is compromised. They are not guilty. The allegory is only appropriate for the blind Italo and the brainless Guilia, but not for Marcello. He is guilty.

Then there is Anna (Dominique Sanda), the professor's piquant wife. Bertolucci signals the character's centrality with her entrance: she stands in the apartment's doorway, thumbs in the pockets of her tight jeans, cigarette dangling from her mouth. The antithesis of conformity. She awakens the uniqueness in Marcello. The defeated individual in him is emboldened against his dominating conformism. There is a spark in him. Perhaps the love of this woman can redeem him. There is a spark in the film too. Bertolucci, for the first time, lets characters out from under his grand architecture. His footnotes are still there, but they clash with characters, and there is dynamism. For the first time in the film, the audience's involvement is not strictly cerebral. Nowhere is spark more apparent than in a breathtakingly tense scene where a still morose but newly aggressive Marcello offers to take Ana to Brazil, leaving everything behind. She strips, walks to him from the darkness into a thick blue light. She hugs and asks him not harm her or her husband. He can't promise her that. His conformity has not yet yielded. Bertolucci's blue light remains; however, he dyes the entire city of Paris in blue. Marcello sees his love this woman as an absolution.

Attrition is what their affair turns out to be. Sensing his corruption, his conformism, Ana displays more affection to (and more sexual interest in) his air-headed wife Guilia. He decides to go ahead with the assassination of his professor. The assassins' plan is to intercept the professor on the way to the countryside. Marcello begs Ana not to go with him. Her murder would end his duality. He would no longer be able grasp absolution. Plato's Cave, inappropriate now, would be an outright lie then. As it happens, Ana goes with her husband on the trip. The resulting sequence, the famous assassination in the forest scene, is where the ferocity, cruelty and power of story are divorced from Bertolucci's grip. Here, in the film's most effective and least affected sequence, a hand-held camera follows a group of thugs chasing Ana in the frozen forest while Marcello watches, expressionless from the car. They catch her, shoot her, and kill her. The power of the scene is independent of Bertolucci's commentary. After that, the spark is gone.

This is the film's emotional climax, but Bertolucci follows it with a much-praised denouement. There, in a surrealistic darkness that is fascism's fall, the director has Macello find the molester chauffer in a dark back alley propositioning yet another youth. In a fit of characteristic avoidance, Marcello points to the chauffer, and shouts to a marching crowd "This is the murderer of professor Qadri and his wife Ana. He is a Fascist." The interpretation here is two-fold. On one level, Marcello blames the lowly chauffer for awakening a "deviant" sexual desire in him that led his pathological conformity and thus the murder of the professor. On a superficial level Marcello is redefining himself as an anti-fascist, reconfirming his values to the political winds, the roaring crowds. They don't listen. With the white unsullied light of fascism gone, he's left there in the darkness of his loathed desires.

It is an epilogue that is befitting of the film it concludes, one for interpretation rather than experience. The Conformist, as I have conceded, is a masterpiece insofar as the definition of a masterpiece is the success of stated, grand goals. It is one of the films where the intricate style perfectly matches an equally intricate plot. I have conceded that, but I don't believe it. The narrative and thematic success of The Conformist come at the expense of what I believe to be the vital organs of a great film. First, it is a film so preoccupied with a psychological scarring that it ignores humor, fallibility, kindness and idiosyncrasies. It reduces its protagonist to a walking thesis, conforms him to its agenda. Second this is an endeavor without otherness. A film without subtext. Nothing exists outside the frame, a space in which the gifted director assumes, rightly, that he can capture his message. But he hasn't captured the breathtaking beauty of a world only partially revealed. A great film, as I believe it to be, is one where a glance inspires awe that inspires reflection. Bertolucci's film is one of unrelenting and acute stares. Like a poem in translation, the message survives, but little else.

Note: The version of The Conformist available to me at the time of writing is dubbed in English. And like all dubbing, it is an atrocity.


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