Published Jan 09, 2013Establishing, and in many ways defining, Bernardo's Bertolucci's omnipresent career thematic trajectory of linking sex and politics, The Conformist, though set in 1930s France and Italy, is a timeless work of sociological and ideological acuity. It takes the relatively humdrum story of the titular conformist, Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a fascist lackey and spy for Mussolini, and expands on his political motivations in a unifying cultural context, suggesting that assimilation—beyond mode of repression—is a socially motivated and inescapable phenomenon.
As Marcello travels with his new bride, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli)—a petty bourgeois he describes as "all bed and kitchen"—from Rome to Paris for their Honeymoon, he accepts a mission to assassinate his old teacher, an anti-fascist identified as problematic by Mussolini's regime. But amidst his hunt and kill mission, Bertolucci's colourful, hyper-realized and dramatic style highlights constant idiosyncrasy and social insanity in every secondary character, exacerbating the theme of perceived normalcy as a collective performance agreement.
Even Marcello himself, when not asserting his staunch determination to be as normal and commonplace as possible, is riddled with individual peculiarities, such as an ambivalent relationship with his mother and tendency to bark back at dogs or disrupt banal conversation with aggressive political observations. Noting that men tend to gravitate towards those that are like-minded, even observing that his only real dalliance with overt individuality was with a young Hitler, he justifies his weak-willed tendency to aggressively adapt to the dominant status quo without question despite being a discerning and politically conscious individual.
Adding psychological intrigue to this overriding ideological debate are the many flashbacks to Marcello's childhood, where a violent homosexual encounter ultimately shaped his mental linkage between sex and violence, acknowledging that manifested repressed desires are akin to annihilation anxiety.
Through Bertolucci's eyes, Marcello's sexuality, or lack thereof, becomes an unspoken narrative unto itself. Able only to perform coital marital obligations when pretending to be someone else, or performing a role, he recreates Giulia's past sexual experiences by filling the role of her absent partner. Similarly, Marcello's own desires are stirred only by impropriety, such as flirting quite overtly with the young wife of his teacher Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), knowing that likelihood of his involvement with her impending death.
Though suggesting that sexual repression leads to deviance is, in itself, not particularly revolutionary, especially when Freud's teachings are standard undergraduate fodder, the implication that an assimilative or adaptive sensibility—something quietly rewarded in modern society—is merely a dangerous, potentially lethal, act of self-loathing akin to Nazi behaviour, is quite acute and subversive. It's a sharply observed lesson that filmmakers like Bertolucci reiterate to generations of people, underscoring the common root cause of cyclic historical tragedy, yet, still, cultures around the world socialize the individual to adapt to a common, often misguided, norm.
As such, Bertolucci's Conformist is a work of pseudo-surrealist necessity, cutting through the filler of symptom analysis and exposing the root cause of human folly. Even though the deliberately bizarre narrative is at times distancing and alienating, there's a thematic focus and intensity that gives this work unique power.
The Conformist screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the A Man and a Woman: Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva retrospective on January 11th, 2013 at 6:30pm. (Paramount)