When in Rome

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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

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