Living Free Under Fascism: The Existential Nightmare of The Conformist

Born in Northern Italy in 1941, it would not be unfair to say that Bernardo Bertolucci’s first-hand experiences with fascism were likely indistinct and inoffensive to his young mind. Mussolini’s regime had fallen when Bernardo was only two, and the future director had only just turned four when the Salò Republic puppet state had finally disintegrated in 1945.

Raised in what he described as a “Marxist context” by intellectual parents in the city of Parma, the young Bernardo came of age during the fledgling days of the First Italian Republic. Though there would be echoes of nationalist extremism, the more apparent political crises of this time (and thus, far more impressionable upon Bertolucci) would have been the severe disparities in wealth between any and all sorts of Italian communities during the so-called “Economic Miracle.”

Given all of this, it is no wonder that Bertolucci admits that his 1970 classic The Conformist, in spite of its fascist setting and aesthetic, is first and foremost a film about the middle-class. It is a gorgeous and oftentimes hilarious critique on the self-preserving but ultimately unfulfilling nature of the affluent, rife with striking visual metaphors (our protagonist at one point, while practicing his aim, mindlessly points a pistol to his head, only to ask: “where is my hat?”). 

Nice shot.

And without doubt, likely as a result of Bertolucci’s learned upbringing, the film is by far one of the greatest ever to explore the existentialist concept of “bad faith” as a central theme.

The Conformist is the story of Marcello Clerici, a soon to be married up-start of some means living in Rome in 1938. On his own accord, Marcello approaches the fascist secret police, offering his services to spy and report on the activities of his anti-fascist former professor Luca Quadri, now living in Paris. Marcello is granted the assignment, but it all too quickly is refocused by the higher-ups from a mere infiltration of his old mentor’s life, to Marcello taking on the role of Quadri’s assassin.

Though his motives are at first questioned by the fascists, Marcello is readily given the job and is commended for his “voluntary agency” in suggesting the mission, while still not having revealed his true intentions. It is only during a pre-marital confession (as imposed by tradition), that Marcello details his aspirations in life: both to garner “the impression of normalcy” and to ultimately “be excused by society.”

It is here where bad faith themes come front and center. Paraphrasing Sartre, human beings live in “bad faith” when they behave in ways that they are not always inclined towards, convincing themselves that such conduct will prove their benefit when in reality it will only mean their unhappiness. Marcello does not pursue a career in fascism out of any innate right-wing tendencies – he does so as a means to his own survival in this fanatic society he finds himself in. When given his new orders to murder Professor Quadri, Marcello states – in a sin against Sartrian existentialism – that he has “no alternative.” Marcello lives in bad faith because he has limited himself to the lone and singular expectations of his new collective, while in reality he has a near-infinity of options before himself (coming from his own privileged background, he very well could have fled the country like Quadri). He commits himself to this predetermined task, much to his own inner turmoil.

But for what exactly does Marcello believe he must be excused for? He is mild-mannered, unassuming, and polite. From certain points of view, up until his intent to deceive Quadri he has made no real moral transgressions. However, it is alluded throughout the film (and at last confirmed in its haunting final shot) that Marcello is a secret homosexual. Marcello’s repression of his true identity is quite literally textbook bad faith, as described in Sartre’s seminal Being and Nothingness.

Bertolucci makes further winks at Sartre’s work with the inclusion of the Anna character, Professor Quadri’s wife. Self-described as “sincere,” Anna involves herself in a strange, love-hate affair with Marcello. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre describes the paradoxical dynamic between the closeted homosexual and their sincerest friends, who also serves as their sharpest critic. Anna, in throwing her lusts at Marcello, is his supporter, all the while despising his disingenuousness and political alliances. But the relationship is a vague gesture by Bertolucci towards Being, almost as underdeveloped and inconcrete as the Sartre’s relevant passages on the subject (or so say some critics, like Santoni).

The film’s most overt reference to philosophy is nothing quite so contemporary. When at last Marcello and Professor Quadri are reunited after so many years, they meet privately in Quadri’s study to discuss Marcello’s abandoned thesis – an analysis on Plato’s allegory of the cave. Much as how the prisoners of the allegory, chained to the rocks of the cave for as long as they can remember, mistake the shadows of passing persons and objects cast from a fire behind them as the only true conception of reality, Quadri believes the situation in Italy to be no different. Fascism has sold the Italian people on a fabrication, a warped and restricted version of their existence, and even their awareness of their own existence – of their capacity to exist. And, in a way, the Italians accept these new terms. Means aside, in a Sartrian sense they choose not to leave. All of Italy, then, is living in bad faith.

While strong themes and a good script do plenty to service the final product of a film, whole projects may seem like half-measures if they do not take advantage of the medium’s distinguishing visual components. However, one can rest assured that The Conformist makes the most of the artform, as lighting and framing are instrumental in depicting Marcello’s confused and isolated sense of identity. The film opens on Marcello in pensive recline, the flashing neon lights of a hotel sign pouring into his room from the window – from red, to darkness. Red. To darkness. The color of violence and blood alternating with nothingness. Marcello believes himself caught in a rock and a hard place: become a murderer, or risk nonexistence within fascism. Flashing back to his early days as a secret police recruit, the camera tilts with Dutch angle anxiety and filters in ambiguous grays all while Marcello believes himself to be followed, only for everything to quite literally be illuminated when Marcello discovers that his ostensible pursuer is none other than Manganiello, his brutish fascist handler. Later in Paris, Manganiello confronts Marcello in a restaurant kitchen, suspecting that the latter may be getting cold feet. A light fixture swings during the spat, its pendulous movements reinforcing, like the earlier hotel lights, Marcello’s moral reservations. And for a film called “The Conformist” there certainly are a lot of wide medium and long shots that stage Marcello as far and away from others as much as possible, and several times he is divided from them by windows – as an outsider, looking in.

Then there is the absolutely brilliant, totally attentive production design. Special commendations must be given to the costumer of Giulia, Marcello’s girlish wife. In any number of scenes, Giulia’s clothes repeat some visual pattern elsewhere in the scene. The black-and-white zig-zags of her first dress are a near repeat of the daylight coming in through the blinds; on a train, her jacket matches the seat-cushions; and at one point, the pleats in her top even match the folds in the hotel room curtains. It is only when out and about in Paris that her attire isn’t totally congruent to her surroundings, no doubt emphasizing her fish-out-of-water obnoxiousness while visiting. But otherwise, Giulia’s wardrobe is a restatement of Marcello’s use for her: to serve as his “petty bourgeoisie” wife that provides the appearance of conventional sentiments.

The Conformist is a master-class in visual poetry. In this scene, the pattern of Giulia’s dress complements the light peering in through the blinds, emphasizing Marcello’s quest for an orderly life in all aspects.

The Conformist also tells its story through the use of its sets. Most of the film takes place in 1938, as fascism in Italy is at the height of its power. Grand halls and marble floors of virgin whites and sturdy grays abound in those scenes taking place in Rome at this time, a display of the opulence and power that fascism can afford its proponents – at least, at that time. For the film’s final 15 minutes, time skips ahead to 1943. Everything is dark, cramped. Marcello has traded out his luxury suits for brown pants and a patterned shirt, Giulia’s now hideous dress goes with the garish upholstery. It is the day that Mussolini had resigned from power, and everything visual that The Conformist provides to make this point would have been enough, but Bertolucci throws in a radio report for good measure. Marcello hears the news in his crowded apartment building, and whatever trust he had put into fascism has now run him into near-destitution. His bad faith has caught up with him at last.

On this fateful night, Marcello leaves home to guide his friend Italo, a blind man, through the city. They do their best to avoid the chaos, but after recognizing Lino, his boyhood sexual abuser, an emotional Marcello cannot contain himself. Likely as a result of the trauma his molester inflicted upon him, Marcello accuses the man as the one true murderer of the Quadris (again, a grave sin against Sartrian existentialists, who believe every individual is responsible for their actions, regardless of context). Once Lino flees, Marcello turns on Italo and outs him as a fascist. In the face of the new anti-fascist powers that be (an angry, revolting body of suppressed lower-class masses), it is Marcello’s final act of conformity. A mob rolls through, and Marcello fights the crowd’s tide, which sweeps away Italo. Alone, Marcello goes to rest by a fire, set alight between him and the open-door home of a young gay man. Marcello turns to face him, his final on-screen moments spent contemplating what very well could be the most important decision of his life.

The final shot of the film. Has Marcello at last overcome his bad faith?

It is a powerful final image, one with clear visual parallel to the allegory of the cave, but in my opinion the film’s most resonant moment comes earlier, when at the dramatic climax Professor Quadri, along with Anna, is at last assassinated. Though Marcello is on-scene at the ambush, he cannot bring himself to murder the professor or even Anna, who screams at him from point-blank range. The archetypal fascist Manganiello, frustrated at Marcello’s inaction, calls him a coward, and that if it were up to Manganiello cowards like Marcello, along with more typically marginalized groups, would all be “lined up against the wall.”

Importantly, Marcello’s conformity has been defined by fear and cowardice, and while plenty of people are natural conformists (being predisposed to trends and popular positions out of some innate affinity), it is quite clear that Marcello’s sense of compliance is a series of deliberate maneuvers trying best to maintain his comfortable place in society.

But for Manganiello, and for fascism, that is simply not enough. Fascism is the cult of action for action’s sake. One cannot conform to it, only commit to it. To try and convince oneself that they can exist idly under fascism’s banner and be secure in the socioeconomic position isn’t just morally incongruous – it is plain bad faith.

You can rent The Conformist nearly anywhere, or check it out for free during your trial period with the Criterion Channel before it rotates out of the service at the end of the month. Thanks for reading.

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