Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” seems to sneer at everything it celebrates. It mocks the excesses of the interbellum bourgeoisie yet revels in the beauty of 1930s Paris. It’s one of the most beautiful films ever made that takes one of the darkest times in history as its subject: Europe’s descent into fascism and World War II. It evokes this world with splendor, and, for the work of a Marxist, seems less concerned with details and conditions of history than its lost beauty. Its aesthetic and political ambitions wrestle. Ambiguity abounds.
An adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s novel, the film follows Marcello Clerici. He’s a middle-aged, upper-class Italian man, a bit of an intellectual and an agent of the OVRA, the Italian version of the Gestapo. He’s on assignment by the Fascist secret police to travel to Paris and assassinate his former professor, Luca Quadri, an anti-fascist dissident who emigrated away from Benito Mussolini’s regime.
Marcello craves normalcy — whatever that is — and hopes to find security and stability in the banality of middle-class life. Indeed, to be normal seems the only desire he has — or at least the only one he’ll admit. So he marries the dullest bourgeois girl he can find and drags her off to Paris where he can kill two birds — his honeymoon and Quadri.
A series of memories, it’s told as Marcello and Manganiello follow the car of Quadri and his wife, Anna, with whom Marcello has an affair, in order to finish the job. Pre-Vichy Paris, not yet stained by collaboration, is the site of most of the action, and rather than a historical representation of the city, Bertolucci evokes a city inscribed with posterity’s imagination. Captured in rich, distorted chiaroscuros of red and blue, Bertolucci’s Paris is a dream and gives the film the expressionistic flare which has earned praise from many critics.
In Paris the object of Marcello’s desires appears to have been found. He walks down the Champs-Elysees, while his wife window-shops with Quadri’s wife, Anna, with whom Marcello has an affair. The quartet goes to dinner, and later dancing.
But no matter what he does, Marcello is not a normal man. With a syphilitic father in a madhouse and a morphine-addicted mother, to be normal seems a reasonable desire. Moreover, when he was a school-boy, he was picked up by a chauffeur, Lino, who, promising to show him a pistol, takes Marcello to his apartment and makes sexual advances toward him, which are not initially rejected. Marcello grabs the pistol, shoots wildly and flees what he believes to be a murder scene. Tally up these aberrations from regular life and normalcy becomes an increasingly attractive home.
The film seems to offer Marcello’s repression of his homosexual desires as a neat explanation for his collaboration with the fascist state. Or, at the very least, fascism gives some form of absolution for whatever their sins — if not for the believers, then for those who abide by it. In an early scene, where this adolescent episode is first shown, Marcello reveals his attempted murder to a Roman priest during confession. But he finds little resolution in the clemency of the church. It’s the state, rather, that becomes a home for him, and it legitimizes him and overwhelms his moral reservations.
As he spends time with the Quadris, it becomes increasingly evident that Marcello might not be capable of killing them. Manganiello attempts to slap a little courage into him, but it’s ineffective. When they finally catch up to the couple, there’s an accident — a car runs into the Quadris. A group of fascist agents emerges from the other car, stabs and kills Quadri, while Anna runs to the car waiting a few meters away. As Marcello watches Anna scream for her life through his window, he refuses to look at her. The distance between the killers and Marcello slims. The lesson is clear: After fascism takes hold, there is no normal, and complicity doesn’t absolve.
But even then, when it seems resolved into a firm political position, the film retains its strangeness. The film hardly means whatever it claims — it’s too complex to merely equate sexual repression and political violence. If the film cannot reconcile the competition between art and politics, it does not needlessly sew them together.
In the final scenes of the film after Mussolini’s fall from power, Marcello sees Lino for the second time, now seducing another young man. He denounces him publicly as a homosexual and a fascist. After then publicly denouncing his friend Italo, a blind man and former Fascist broadcaster, Marcello gazes at the body of Lino’s would-be partner. Ideology cannot corrupt everything.