A fascinated perplexity is the mood you bring away from The Conformist. In this regard, Bernardo Bertolucci is marvellously faithful not just to Alberto Moravia's novel, on which his film is based, but to the spirit of all Moravia's work, where, infallibly, the more vividly and lucidly events are described, the more incomprehensible they become.
Marcello Clerici, an agent of Mussolini's fascism, travels to Paris to infiltrate a dissident movement led by his old philosophy professor, Luca Quadri. But, during the journey, Marcello receives fresh orders: he must assassinate the professor. Since Quadri's beautiful young wife, Anna, is always beside him, she, too, is at risk. The scene is set for a double murder.
Yet our feelings are never those we expect from such a plot. Little attempt is made to evoke fascism's menace; there are no scenes of mass hysteria or images of marching soldiers. Professor Quadri himself is neither handsome nor charismatic. We never worry about his destiny, nor are we invited to shed a tear for two lovers in jeopardy: Anna does seem genuinely attached to her dissident husband, but she also turns out to be more than ready to kiss Marcello, and Marcello's wife, too.
For running alongside the political thriller, or rather superimposed over it, is a sentimental comedy of the French variety. Marcello has just married the empty-headed Giulia and is planning to carry out his deadly mission during his honeymoon. The oneiric folly of combining such duties receives no comment, as if assassinating dissidents on your honeymoon were the most natural thing in the world: Paris, after all, is the city of political exile and of romance.
Having spent the train journey from Rome confessing to a long affair with a 60-year-old friend of the family, Giulia, who can't be much over 20, first does everything to get her reluctant husband into bed, then, after the couple make contact with Quadri, seems not unhappy to find herself the object of lesbian caresses from Anna, who in turn responds ambiguously to aggressive sexual advances from Marcello. All this on the first day in Paris. That same evening, during a drunken dance at a crowded party, Giulia protests that the professor has made a pass at her. "I'm so happy, I'm sure I'll soon feel awful!" she squeals.
But, again, we don't respond with the smiles and tender anxieties that sentimental comedies usually arouse. The world Bertolucci creates for his characters is wonderfully lush, yet ominous and oppressive, too. The most trivial transactions are heavy with premonition. What on earth is going on?
Like many Italian novels written immediately after the second world war, Moravia's The Conformist travels, as it were, with false papers. Both in its title and the tortured debate it sustains for 300 dense pages, the book purports to offer a socio-psychological analysis of the roots of fascism. Bullied by schoolmates because effeminate, the adolescent Marcello was "rescued" by a pederast chauffeur, who then tried to abuse him. Given the man's gun to hold, the boy started shooting wildly and, whether intentionally or by accident, killed the pervert. From this moment on, he felt profoundly alienated, and it is his longing to overcome the distance between himself and others that eventually leads to his joining the fascist party and choosing to marry the most ordinary of middle-class girls. He must, he decides, become "normal" at any cost; fear of being different, then, is at the root of fascism.
Convincing as it may sound, the idea is a complete red herring when it comes to getting a grip on either the novel or Bertolucci's film. Critics have filled endless pages trying to pin down the normality Marcello aspires to. Is Moravia/Bertolucci telling us that fascism is normality? Or is the irony that Marcello looks for normality in a movement that is the height of abnormality and that eventually asks him to repeat the very action that he was fleeing from: murder?
Then how "normal" is a young wife who doesn't seem overly upset that she was raped at 15, or that her husband has come on his honeymoon without his libido, or that a new female acquaintance is sliding a hand between her thighs? Stefania Sandrelli's performance as Giulia has such giggly, vacuous charm that, normality or no, we can only ask for more. Beside her, Jean-Louis Trintignant as Marcello is magnificently gloomy, his handsome face tense, jaw clenched, hands bunched in his pockets, knees clasped together, always gazing unhappily around, enjoying neither his wife nor the gun he carries. Very soon, we are more anxious for him than for his potential victims.
A mysterious, rather Pinteresque character gives us a clue to where, mute beneath the loud debate on normality and fascism, the real tension of the story lies. Everywhere he goes, Marcello is shadowed by another agent, Manganiello (almost the Italian word for truncheon), inferior in rank and culture, but with far greater experience of spying and killing.
Manganiello plays chauffeur to the more intelligent but inert Marcello; he brings him his orders, checks on his progress, urges him to stop procrastinating and act. "Action must be swift and decisive," he says at one point, yet he seems resigned to the fact that Marcello isn't going to do anything at all.
Here we are at the heart of the story. Despite going through the motions, Marcello is an agent who can't act; he only watches and thinks. If a honeymoon and an assassination have one thing in common, it is that both groom and murderer are intensely involved in life. Marcello has chosen those roles deliberately, but can't deliver. Why not?
Moravia created his mood of paralysed puzzlement by having a hyper-conscious character ponder obsessively over situations that elude explanation (Marcello, we discover, was Quadri's star philosophy student). The consequent melancholy and frustration prompt moments of irrational violence: when Marcello grabs Anna and proposes they run off to Brazil, it is more an attempt to get out of his present predicament than to get into anything new.
Transferring the story to the screen, Bertolucci has to deliver Marcello's tortured lucubration in just a few intense dialogues: a startling confession to a priest; an unsettling conversation with a blind fascist mentor. But what makes The Conformist a masterpiece is its use of colour, camerawork, scene-setting and flashback to achieve a perplexity and wonder that is entirely cinematic and leaves Moravia's literary construct far behind.
Almost every scene is shot in surroundings rich in colour or chiaroscuro, yet disturbingly claustrophobic in their grid-like symmetry. The swept stone spaces and rigid lines of fascist architecture set the tone as Marcello wanders up great flights of marble steps through vast, empty government buildings, only to find the minister he is looking for making love to a whore on his desk.
In Giulia's apartment, the black hoops of her white dress intersect hypnotically with bright sunlight through the slats of half-lowered blinds (a very Italian scene), so that the woman and her surroundings present themselves as a sophisticated puzzle that dazzles the mind out of thought. Often, the framing is slightly angled, tilted, skewed, so that, though the camera movements are graceful and the editing fluid, they never allow the viewer a sense of security.
Stiff and upright in this disquieting world, his smart suits and hats determinedly dull, Marcello finds himself spying on people through frosted glass, or art-nouveau ironwork, or rain-soaked windows. The more separate people are from him, the more he stares. When he buys flowers, he seems uncertain who to give them to: the maid? His wife? Anna? All women are possible lovers. When he picks up a gun, he points it experimentally at fellow officials, at himself, at anyone.
In a bizarre scene where Marcello confabulates with Manganiello in the back corridor of a Chinese restaurant, one of them knocks a low lamp that then swings giddily back and forth for an impossibly long time as Marcello tries to hand over his gun, and Manganiello insists he stay true to his mission. Back at the table where he is eating with the Quadris, Marcello is insulted by Anna for his fascist views, then discovers she is encouraging him to play footsie. Contriving to be tenderly feminine, yet to walk and smoke like a man, Dominique Sanda's performance as Anna is as enigmatic as they come. If narrative usually reminds us how identity is created through interaction - each character becoming more themselves, the more they are dramatically involved with others - this film shows how difficult it is to be anyone at all when those around you are so unpredictable. At intervals, faces are bathed in deep blues, or reds, or yellows, as if to suggest sudden, intense mood swings. Deprived of a neutral light, the would-be objective Marcello is lost.
Bertolucci's visual climax (but much of the credit must go to photography director Vittorio Storaro) comes in a dance hall that is all weirdly blue lattice windows with brilliant red-and-white frames where Giulia and Anna first sway together in a deliciously slow tango, then lead a crowd in a Dionysian dance chain that threads out of one door and in another to close threateningly around the rigid and appalled Marcello.
Never quite descending into the surreal, or the more obvious comic mode of Buñuel, Bertolucci's treatment powerfully underlines the existentialist and absurdist elements in Moravia's thriller. "It's not your country or your ideals you'll be betraying, if you abandon your mission," Manganiello warns Marcello, "but yourself"; as if to say, regardless of beliefs, if you don't act, you can't have an identity. Casually fusing the sexual and the political, he sums up: "Chi non fotte è fottuto." The pathetic subtitling ("You must fight or be beaten") doesn't begin to get across the Italian: "If you don't fuck, you'll get fucked over."
What are we to make of this advice? So many Italian novels that came out of the fascist period give us heroes whose inertia in the political struggle is obscurely paralleled by an exclusion from sexual life. It's the destiny of the impotent Antonio of Brancati's Beautiful Antonio (filmed by Mauro Bolognini with Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale), of Pavese's hero in The House On the Hill, of the narrator of Bassani's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (filmed by De Sica with Lino Capolicchio and Dominique Sanda) and, arguably, of Giovanni Drogo in Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe (filmed by Zurlini with Vittorio Gassman). All these stories undercut political conflicts with a deeper division between those who throw themselves into the struggle and those left paralysed and mesmerised on the sidelines.
Are these characters just indecisive intellectuals, examples of Dostoevsky's claim in Notes from Underground that "the more conscious a man is, the more he is likely to be a highly conscious mouse"? Are they phobic, drawn to action but afraid of it? Or are they archetypal pacifists? Certainly, their instinctive rejection of the demands of conflict is what arouses our sympathy.
Bertolucci made The Conformist in 1970, shortly after disagreeing with his mentor Godard over the revolutionary politics of 1968; the phone number Marcello dials to contact Quadri was Godard's number in Paris, as if Bertolucci were placing the older director inside the struggle and himself in a contemplative position outside. In fact, all Bertolucci's work, right through to the dramatic last scene of The Dreamers, is concerned with the often murky relationship between private life and political commitment.
But maybe exactly as The Conformist addresses existential issues, it also begins to say something interesting about fascism: for example, that life is so baffling in its comedy and beauty that there will always be those desperate to stamp order on it; or alternatively that fascism, unlike nazism, was often more of a dream of decisive action than the thing itself. Either way (or neither), with its visual, textual and symbolic density, its music sliding from sinister to vaudeville, and its plot ever more impenetrable as it accelerates towards the violent denouement, The Conformist remains a hugely entertaining conundrum. I ask for nothing better of a film.
·The Conformist is at selected cinemas now. Details: bfi.org.uk/conformist
A couple of days ago I re-watched My favorite film from the Italian Maestro Bernado Bertolucci – The Conformist.I was lucky enough to be introduced to this film in the Alberto Moravia film retrospective in Beijing,although it was a projection display of poor quality dvd,the stunning stylish visuals still blew me away. After watching it again,I would include it in my top 20 films of all time,one of my favorite film cinematographer Vittorio Storaro left a rich legacy to all the later cinematographers,it is,in my opinion,one of the best textbooks for cinematography,because it peaks in so many categories.To pay homage to this work of visual wonders,I decide to pick some of the most visually outstanding scenes to analyze the cinematic magic in them.
Lights and Shadows
In this scene with Marcello and his fiancee at home,the stripes of shades are filtered by the curtains and beautifully reflect on the bodies of the characters.Vittorio Storaro explains he was using this kind of sharp contrast of light and shadows to “form a cage” on the protagonist,which visualized the conflict inside the character.After Marcello goes to Paris,the lights start to embrace the shadows and colors appear on the images too.As the character’s psychology changes,so does the light and shadows around him.
In this famous scene,Marcello visits his former teacher at his home,they talk about the theory of “Plato’s cave“.The story is about many people was kept prisoners in a cave from the beginning of their lives,and they were forced to look at the shadows created by the fire outside the cave and moving people and objects passing in front of it,and they believed that was what real life is.Both Bertolucci and Storaro love this idea and thought it was a perfect metaphor of the relationship between film-goers and cinema.In order to create the “cave feel” of the images,Storaro refered to a painting called La Vocazione Di San Matteo by the famous painter Caravaggio,this is one of the rare paintings that have a clear boundary between light and darkness.Storaro used the exact same idea to shoot this scene to symbolize the conscience and un-conscience of the protagonist,he has something to present in front of him,which is the reality,also he has to hide something inside him.
Storaro’s lighting is so masterful and stylish and symbolic in this film,I couldn’t list them all here,but allow me to post a still from an interesting scene.
This is the scene in which the two guys meet secretly,the director deliberately asked one of the actors to touch the bulb so it would swing back and forth while the two characters were talking,so the lighting of the whole scene is switched on and of f back and forth,very interesting lighting.
The Color Scheme
It’s obvious Storaro used three main filters in the film,Blue,Yellow and White.
Speaking of the brilliance in it and its influence on the upcoming New Hollywood Cinema,I could’t state it better than John in this article,so I’d better quote the whole paragraph.
“Some aspects of Bertolucci travelled less well. Some of his formal ideas were greedily consumed by American film-makers, while the radical politics and pointedly Brechtian alienation techniques were largely discarded. Thus the emotionally expressive colour scheme of The Conformist – principally evident in the honeymoon train-ride of Clerici and his blousy new bride, during which insanely unrealistic rear-projection and alternating blue and gold filters throw into doubt the dependability of Clerici’s perceptions – are partially replicated in the colour-scheme of the two sections – past and present – of The Godfather: Part II. Its flashback sections are shot in ridiculously warm and nostalgic golds and sepias (the consoling colours of infantile memory and adult self-delusion) while the late 1950s present-day is rendered in icily comfortless blues and greys. Similarly, Taxi Driver’s heavy reliance on the perceptions of Travis Bickle, the least reliable narrator in 1970s cinema, is evoked using many powerful expressionist effects that Bertolucci had made his own – but, again, with no concomitant importation of his political radicalism.”
Here comes my favorite scene in the film,the dancing scene.
The Mise-en-scene here is just incredible.Look at how the group of people quickly form a queue of circles and walk out of the restaurant,then the camera turns around inside the restaurant,shooting those people outside the window,then stops at the guy Marcello is about to meet.Then the camera focused on the two characters with the background of the queue,as the people is about to come back,they stop talking and the queue enters the room and circles Marcello in the center,gives us a feeling that the protagonist is trapped.The choreography and camera movement of the whole scene is so perfectly designed and executed that this part of the plot moves so fluently.
You can find all kinds of visual brilliance throughout the film,besides all those mentioned above,I’m gonna give you more in set pieces.
The opening sequence,I love how the camera moves up and reveals the naked body of Marcello’s lover.
The tilt tracking shot of Marcello walking to get his mission,reminds me of the tilt shots of The Third Man.
When we are enjoying the flirt scene in the office,the camera suddenly pulls back and shows how vast this place is.
The camera starts very low,almost tied with the ground,and than pulls up to shoot the leaves,you can easily find the copy in Coen Brother’s Miller’s Crossing and Kieslowski’s Three Colors Red,which also stars Jean-Louis Trintignant.
Finally,the hunt for Dominique Sanda character,the hand held camera is just so shocking,so ahead-its-time and so… right.
Finishing this essay is just like taking notes from one of the greatest filmmaking lessons,I’ve always wanted to write something like this,scene by scene,pure cinema,I’m proud that I pulled it off,and hope you could watch this film soon after reading this essay,no matter how many times you have seen it.
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