When in Rome
The Conformist, rated R, in Italian and French with subtitles, The Screen, 4 chiles
IMarcello Clerici wants to be normal. Ordinary. Just like everybody else. Marcello is the title character in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 masterpiece The Conformist. As beautifully played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, he is essentially an empty suit. He’s a man morally, sexually, and politically conflicted. His life has been traumatized by a childhood incident when a chauffeur tried to rape him — an episode that ended with little Marcello grabbing the man’s pistol and shooting him.
Since then, all Marcello has wanted to do is blend in, esescape notice. And in Italy in the late 1930s, blending in means, among other things, being a good fascist. It also means getting married to a nice, simple, pretty bbourgeois girl, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), whom he ddescribes to a priest in confession as “all bed and kkitchen.” It’s the first confession of his life, undertaken at the wishes of his fiancée as a pro forma prenuptial clcleansing sacrament (“Nobody believes in it,” she asassures him, “not even the priests”). He admits in ththe confessional to shooting the chauffeur, but he discovers that the priest wants to hear not about murder but about sex. When Marcello’s best friend, a fascist named Italo ( José Quaglio), asks him why he’s getting married, he replies that when he looks in the mirror he sees someone who is different; he hopes getting married to Giulia will help him to seem the same as everyone else.
He has also joined the Fascist Party, been drafted as an agent by Mussolini’s secret police, and accepted an assignment to assassinate his former university philosophy instructor, Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), a committed anti-fascist activist now living in exile in France.
As the movie opens, Marcello is on his honeymoon, bathed in red neon light that pulses through the window of his Paris hotel room, sitting on the bed next to a sleeping Giulia and waiting for the phone to ring with the order to execute his mission. When it does, he grabs his gun, poses with it before the mirror, draws a sheet over his wife’s naked bottom, and heads down to meet his driver.
Much of the rest of the movie is told from this point on in flashback, in the course of the drive toward the forest where the assassination will be carried out. We see the youthful molestation episode, which leaves Marcello riddled with guilt over the shooting and ashamed and confused by the sexual feelings the incident aroused in him. We meet Marcello’s drug-taking mother and his institutionalized, mentally ill father (not a hereditary mental illness, Marcello assures his fiancée’s mother). And we travel with Marcello to Paris to meet the professor and his beautiful young wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda).
This is where Marcello’s conflicts are thrown into stark relief. He admires the professor, who at first remembers Marcello only dimly from his university days. They talk about Marcello’s course thesis on Plato’s cave, which describes chained men looking at shadows cast on the wall by the firelight and mistaking the shadows for reality. Marcello doesn’t want to kill his old mentor, who observes that he does not even seem to be a particularly committed fascist. Marcello also finds himself aroused by Anna.
Anna reciprocates, up to a point, although it becomes clear to Marcello and to us (although not to the vacuous Giulia) that it is his wife who excites her primary sexual interest. There is a scene, ravishing in its painterly perfection, in which Anna kneels, caressing the knees of Giulia, who is sprawled naked on the bed in an ecstasy of consumerism, exhausted from shopping and trying on new clothes. (“Women shop,” Anna has noted drily earlier. “Men pay.”) Giulia is scarcely aware of the erotic attention. But Marcello, watching from the shadows of the doorway, knows what’s going on. And Anna knows he knows and baits him with it. In a later tango in a Parisian dance hall, with Anna leading and Giulia melting in her arms, Bertolucci doubles down on the theme and shows the contrast between the sapphic assurance of the politically and sexually self-confident Anna and the passive, vacillating Marcello.
Bertolucci fills the screen with contrasts between dark, furtive shadows and the epic monumentalism