By Jessi Klein
Directed by Bertolucci in 1970, The Conformist looks back at Italy's fascist past to weave an epic modern tale in which political and psychosexual dysfunction are shown to be inextricably linked. Based on the novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia, the film uses a non-linear narrative to follow the story of Marcello Clerici, an Italian from an upper class family whose childhood brush with homo-sexuality creates a pathological cycle of shame which can only be eradicated by an overzealous conformity to society's political mandates. When Mussolini rises to power, Clerici seizes the opportunity to prove his loyalty to the Fascist regime by volunteering to set up the assassination of an anti-fascist leader and ex-patriot now located in Paris. The story takes a turn when we realize the target of the mission is Professor Quadri, Clerici's mentor and father figure from his days as a university student.
Upon arrival in Paris, both Clerici and his wife, Giulia, become sexually entangled with Anna Quadri, the professor's wife. The sexual relationship between Clerici and Anna makes the assassination of both her and her husband an even greater indictment of Clerici's perverse morality. The film ends by making a jump several years into the future; with statues of Il Duce being dragged through the streets, the Fascist regime is literally crashing down around the Clerici's house. Right before the end of the film, Marcello Clerici encounters the same homosexual limo driver who made a sexual pass at him decades ago. Although Clerici thought he had killed him, the man, Lino, is still alive--in Clerici's mind, a living piece of evidence that points to his "original sin." In a fit of madness, Clerici blames him for his own acts.
Throughout the film, Bertolucci's cinematic style synthesizes
expressionism, invisible Hollywood editing, and "fascist" film
aesthetics of the kind articulated in classic German films of the
thirties, such as in Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will and
Fritz Lang's Metropolis. For instance, Clerici's visit to his
mother's house is expressionistically shot with the camera
blatantly tilted at an acute angle. In Paris, the scene in which Clerici's
reluctance to participate in the farandole leads him to be
surrounded by an enormous revolving circle of dancers is shot from
an angle high above, so that their individual bodies are
de-emphasized. Instead, the organization of the bodies into one
regular geometry is what we see most clearly. This technique was
effectively used by both Riefenstahl and Lang to express the fascist
power's complete subordination of the individual and his body in
order to construct an impeccably organized mass.