The Conformist is screening as part of a BFI season of European noir, films that take the distinctively American concepts and clichés of 1940s crime fiction and filter them through a more experimental and internalised European new wave aesthetic. In its narrative, The Conformist looks back to the early days of Italian fascism, detailing the efforts of a zealous convert to submerge himself in the new conventions of his country. But in its style and subtext the film is very much of its time, a child of the late 60s, loaded with existential questions of identity, sexuality and gender.
Marcello Clerici lives with psychological scars inflicted in boyhood, sexual traumas which have driven him to seek out the most ordinary life possible. In Mussolini’s Italy this means marriage, procreation and an unquestioning acceptance of the new political order. Eager to follow his masters’ instructions, Clerici takes his new bride to Paris, ostensibly on their honeymoon but actually to contact Professor Quadri, an old tutor who has since become a leading light in the anti-fascist movement. But when Clerici’s orders change from assignation to assassination he balks, his innate cowardice warring with his overwhelming desire to obey.
The first act of the film is restless and at times frustrating, toying with ideas and then discarding them, giving us insight into Clerici’s tortured past and newly fanatical present but struggling for coherence. Events shift back and forth in time, seemingly key characters are introduced never to reappear, and bizarre events, such as a festive dance at a local centre for the blind, cause jarring interruptions to the narrative flow. But following Clerici’s departure for Paris the main thread of the plot becomes clearer. Tension is permitted to build, characters to develop, as the narrative progresses inexorably towards its gripping, horrific conclusion.
As a central figure, Clerici is at first enigmatic, then reprehensible, then pitiable and finally simply pathetic. For Bertolucci the most terrifying face of fascism is not the sneering demagogue but the willing follower, the one who takes the path of least resistance, offering tacit support and justification. Clerici is repeatedly offered the opportunity to act – either in support or defiance of his leaders – but at every turn he does nothing, floundering in self-pity and confusion. Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performance is restrained but achingly effective, assuming the character of a man who has none.
But the real star of The Conformist, and justifiably so, is Vittorio Storaro’s breathtaking photography. Hailed as a textbook example of the cinematographer’s art, the film luxuriates in washes of soft colour and pale, gauzy light, contrasting the hard, grey architectural edges of fascism with the warm, vulnerable contours of the human form. The climactic sequence on a remote mountain road is utterly devastating, a scene of pure savagery played out amid the towering tranquillity of the silent, shimmering forest.
The Conformist is a problematic film, in its structure and coherence, and particularly in its portrayal of women, who seem either to be brainless ditzes or predatory hunters, but who pay the price either way. But still it is regarded as a masterpiece, and with good reason. The film explores a complex and vital topic with intelligence, insight and emotional clarity, asking important and relevant questions about humanity’s desire for acceptance, while creating a visual spectacle unmatched in modern cinema.