“I really am a pessimist. I’ve always felt that fascism is a more natural governmental condition than democracy. Democracy is a grace. It’s something essentially splendid because it’s not at all routine or automatic. Fascism goes back to our infancy and childhood, where we were always told how to live. We were told, Yes, you may do this; no, you may not do that. So the secret of fascism is that it has this appeal to people whose later lives are not satisfactory.” ― Norman Mailer
If nothing else, Bernardo Bertolucci always strikes me as an unlikely object of sensuality. Even in photographs, as a young man posing with Pasolini, he does not appear the kind of carnal animal who would later construct Last Tango in Paris (1972) out of flesh and mud. He arrived formally towards the tail end of the French New Wave, announcing himself only a year after Godard’s Weekend with a reimagining of Dostoevsky’s The Double (Partner, 1968). And it is to Godard that he owes a great political debt. The Conformist combines the twin engines of sexuality and politics, Godard’s pillars, in a heady broth. As Phillip Green of The Guardian comments, “the film attempts to reconcile Marx and Freud.” As an inquiry into the defective psychology of Fascism, it is unconquerable.
Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) seeks complicity in the great architecture of Fascism. He wants a wife, ‘full of paltry ideas‘, and he wants an assignment: liquidation of radicals and subversives. Through marble hallways, he clamours for guidance, seeking admittance into the creaking infrastructure of totalitarianism. His mother is a broken witch, a forgotten, morphine-ridden remnant of the middle-class, clinging to dirty riches. His father is incarcerated in an asylum, rendered insane from ‘forcing caster oil on the natives‘. We all fight to extricate ourselves from the guilt of our childhood. In Clerici’s case, a dehumanizing homosexual encounter with a young soldier, which he confesses without remorse to a pitiless priest, vowing to alter the course of history beyond the confines of religion. He killed the soldier, and violence and sex are fused inextricably in his subconscious. Only a perpetuation of the violence, complete capitulation, can purge his spirit.
This sounds sincere, frank, admirable. But Bertolucci here is fucking around at the fringes of narrative. Driving towards the assassination of a former tutor, Clerici reflects on his past in spiralling, stuttering flashback, memories of hard clean office spaces, dreamed into existence by the great Vittorio Storaro. This is the New Wave in regression, a 1930’s vision of stucco exactness that tells us more about how Italy’s new Roman Empire was managed on a day-to-day basis than anything Clerici ever does or says. These external spaces, architectural precision, taunt his desire for ultimate conformity and they are wondrous. If the film is not remembered for its sexual frankness, or its damning incitement of Fascists of all stripes, then it lodges firmly in the gullet of cinematic history as great innovation in cinematography. It is a visual masterpiece. Storaro has stated that the film gave him the chance to ‘discover the vibration, the emotion of the colour blue’.
Clerici does not realize, until too late, what is already self-evident. He attends a gathering of sightless people, led by his friend Quadri. A fight breaks out, flailing in the dark, interrupting the general goodwill. Later he recalls Plato’s allegory of the cave, reality masquerading as shadows on walls. He has attempted, stupidly, futilely, to prove his worth to a perfectly inhuman system. He watches coldly as the object of his love, the only woman to question his absolute belief, is gunned down mercilessly in a groaning Teutonic forest. He has given himself to a party of the blind, chained himself to the wall of the cave, watching dancing shadows tango and writhe. We all search, endlessly, to conform to our own social patterns and models, however these may manifest themselves.