Dec 26, 2018

The Conformist

By sheer happenstance, I watched Bernardo Bertolucci’s arguable magnum opus Il conformist (1970) aka The Conformist for the very first time only a couple days before the Italian auteur died. As a longtime cinephile, it might seem inexplicable that I would wait so long to watch a purported great masterpiece of cinema history, but I have always had very strong mixed feelings about Bertolucci and surely regard him as among my least favorite of the great post-WWII guido filmmakers, namely due to his idiotically expressed political views and rather ‘cosmopolitan’ international career. Indeed, it is no coincidence that, out of all the Italian filmmakers, Bertolucci made the most successful transition to Hollywood and the international English-language market, as if his own nation and culture meant very little to him aside from as a tiresome tool to express his insipid political views, thereupon making it all the more ironic that Pier Paolo Pasolini—a fellow poet that, despite being a gay Marxist, basked in his guidoness, whether it be high or lowbrow—was more or less responsible for jump-starting his career by hiring him to work as first assistant on his debut feature Accattone (1961) and then co-penning (with help from his protégé Sergio Citti) his directorial debut La commare secca (1962) aka The Grim Reaper. Quite aesthetically different from anything else that he would later direct and indubitably Pasolinian in terms of theme and gritty realist location and mostly lewd lumpenproletariat characters, The Grim Reaper is like a guido ghetto reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Rashômon (1950) that reveals very little about the auteur’s political persuasion aside from a general interest in street people. It was not until I had the grand displeasure of watching his beyond bloated five-hour neo-bolshevik epic 1900 (1976) aka Novecento—a film so sinisterly stupid in its mundane Marxist agitprop and smugly contrived displays of the grotesque that it depicts a blackshirt fascist portrayed by Donald Sutherland not only gleefully killing a kitty cat by headbutting, but also bashing in the brains of a fascistic little boy that he and his overweight bitch lover just molested—that I had to write-off Bertolucci as nothing more than a petty propagandist that hypocritically utilized Hollywood cash and stars to make unintentionally cheesy commie cinematic crap, hence why it took me so long to finally take the plunge and watch The Conformist. After all, I have no problem appreciating the work of commie artists as I regard both Pasolini and Visconti as being among my favorite filmmakers, but I cannot stomach someone that is so dishonestly dehumanizing and one-dimensional in their preposterously insincere pro-prole propaganda.  Somewhat surprisingly, Bertolucci's fascist era flick is great and everything that 1900 isn't in terms of being rather nuanced, ambiguous, thoughtful, and even sometimes strikingly idiosyncratic (indeed, it is probably the only film will you find that features a surreal fascist dance party comprised of blind people).

 Luckily, despite being based on a novel by a Jewish communist by the name of Alberto Moravia—a half-heeb that had a somewhat schizophrenic genetic lineage in the sense that he had famous kosher paternal commie cousins that were murdered by Mussolini but also a fascist leader Augusto De Marsanich as a maternal uncle—The Conformist is arguably not only Bertolucci’s most aesthetically complex and  ambitious film, but also his most esoteric, otherworldly, and enigmatic to the point of seeming like a elliptical fascist nightmare of the perversely purgatorial sort where the emotional essence (as opposed to the historical facts) are depicted in a surprisingly poetic fashion. Naturally, a film of such a ambitious and ambiguous nature has invited varying, sometimes contradicting, theories and critiques from, rather unfortunately, mostly left-wing and communist sources. For example, in his classic text of turgid tediousness The Altering Eye: Contemporary International Cinema (1983), Hebraic film academic Robert Phillip Kolker made the rather dubious argument that, “THE CONFORMIST is one of a group of films, beginning with ROME, OPEN CITY and of which Visconti’s THE DAMNED is a major example, that attempt to discuss fascism as a manifestation of perverted or misaligned sexuality. One source for this is perhaps Wilhelm Reich’s THE MASS PSYCHOLOGY OF FASCISM as well as the historical realities of Nazi experimentations, eugenics, and fascism’s obsessively male-centered ideology. Fascism is an ideology of denial and destruction, the romance of sacrifice and conquest brought to a climax in the abjuring of any human quality but the ability to kill and die. In truth it does not emerge from aberrant sexuality nor lead to it. Aberration occurs in its turning sexuality, as it turns any other human activity, into a thing to be used in a destructive way. Fascists are not degenerates […] but the cause of degeneration; yet sexual perversity remains a favored means of explaining fascism or demonstrating its effects.” While Reich was indeed a sexually abusive quack that rightly died in jail where all obscenely socially deleterious beings should, Kolker seems to have borrowed his understanding of fascism from Steven Spielberg, on top of completely ignoring the fact that, despite political persuasion, virtually all of the protagonists in Bertolucci’s films are perverts of some sort, including the leftist ones. In fact, although surely somewhat sexually sick, the titular ‘fascist’ of The Conformist suffers from an understandable affliction, most notably post-traumatic stress, as a result of shooting a queer chauffeur that attempted to molest him when he was just a wee little lad, thereupon causing him to grow up into a somewhat screwed up individual that puts a premium on normalcy as a means to compensate for both his trauma and conflicted sexuality, hence his strong desire to prove himself as a fascist spy. 

 Simultaneously sympathetic and sickening like a perennially wounded animal that will go to any self-debasing low to soothe his seemingly perennial pain, the film's unconventional antihero, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant)—the seemingly forsaken prodigy of a junky whore mother and loony institutionalized father that once had the honor of seeing Hitler stereotypically speak in a beer hall—cannot even really be seen a true fascist as he would commit the same exact morally bankrupt betrayals for a communist regime, hence how he is able to so easily reunite with an exiled communist teacher-mentor named Professor Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) that he has been hired to spy on. Not unlike Martin Ritt’s John le Carré adaptation The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)—a film that makes the Cold War seem like a Kalfka-esque nightmare where the lunatics have taken over the asylum—the film completely destroys the silly James Bond myth and depicts spies as the ultimate unscrupulous gutter-dwelling scum-bags and shifty snakes. Ultimately, the film not only reveals the antihero to be an abject failure as a fascist, but also as a spy. Indeed, when Marcello cannot gain the testicular fortitude to kill his professor pal, a real fascist named Special Agent Manganiello (Gastone Moschin)—a virtual caricature of fascistic will-to-power prowess that literally masturbates while fantasizing about executing undesirable untermenschen and is comparable to fascist politician Roberto Farinacci in terms of making Mussolini seem like a liberal eunuch by comparison due to his extreme anti-clerical and counter-kosher stances—carries out the job with the help of his shadowy underlings, but not before declaring in the presence of the pathetic protagonist, “For my money, cowards, pederasts, Jews are all the same. If it was up to me I’d line them all against the wall. Better, kill them at birth.” Of course, this short yet power piece of dialogue ends any lingering sense of doubt as to whether Marcello is a true fascist or not (in fact, in a scene where his handler cynically reveals that most fascist spies are monetary-motivated, it becomes clear that few of these fascists were ‘true believer’ types).  In short, like in any society, the characters of The Conformist naturally adapt to their political climate, which completely changes by the end of the film, thus underscoring this unfortunate yet not-all-that-surprising human tendency.

When Orson Welles stated in a 1958 interview, “All of the eloquence of film is created in the editing room,” he surely could have had Bertolucci's masterpiece in mind as it is a film that is seemingly immaculate in terms of narrative structure despite being depicted largely from the perspective of a mental defective of sorts.  With its elliptical editing that can be compared to Henry Jaglom’s much inferior debut A Safe Place (1971) and the films of the late great British auteur Nicolas Roeg (who incidentally only died a couple days before Bertolucci), The Conformist reveals a individual whose perturbed psyche acts as an ‘unreliable narrator’ of sorts.  Haunted by an exceedingly epicene homo from his childhood that he incorrectly believes he killed, Marcello has a deep all-consuming fear of his own latent sexuality and thus obtains a ‘beard’ in the form of a terribly dumb yet beauteous flapper-like wife named Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) that he openly admits he has next to nil sexual or emotional interest in.  Although Marcelle does fall in love with his professor’s young blonde wife Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda), she proves to be a sexually flexible lesbian of sorts. Somewhat curiously, in two different sexually foreboding scenarios hat underscore the protagonist’s delicate mental state, Marcello randomly encounters Anna—or at least her archetypal doppelgänger—twice in semi-surreal situations before he ever officially meets her, including lying provocatively on the desk of a fascist official and lurking around a baroque brothel. Undoubtedly, aggressive bisexual Anna is a symbol of the ideal yet ultimately obtainable archetypal female for the protagonist, so naturally he plays an imperative role in her grisly and ultimately completely pointless death.

 Indeed, like a perverse tribute to Oscar Wilde’s words, “Yet each man kills the thing he loves,” Marcello not only plays a (pathetically passive) role in murdering Anna, but also ultimately his own soul, hence his eventual breakdown near the very end of the film where he randomly happens upon Pasqualino ‘Lino’ Semirama (Pierre Clémenti)—the homosexual chauffeur that he wrongly assumed he killed as a child—and has a dangerous public freakout that really underscores the antihero's morbidly conflicted mindset. Indeed, not only does Marcello project his own crimes onto a completely bewildered Lino, who has no clue who the protagonist is, and accuse him of being the “assassin” that killed Professor Quadri and his wife Anna, but he also attacks his sole friend Italo Montanari (José Quaglio)—a blind fascist radio host—and accuses him of being a “fascist” and killer. Of course, it is hinted that the protagonist secretly resents Italo throughout the film, as he reminds him of his much loathed ‘othernness.’ In fact, when Italo notes they are both “different” and thus “two of a kind,” Marcello becomes visibly annoyed. Clearly a fascist more out of necessity as a cripple than any sort of die-heard blackshirt, Italo also reveals he understands Marcello better than anyone else in the film by declaring to him, “It’s funny though, you know? Everyone would like to be different from the others, but instead you want to be the same as everyone else.” Undoubtedly, probably more lucidly than any other film that I have ever seen, The Conformist confirms C.G. Jung’s wise words, “The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.” 

While Marcello and his pathetically pathologically unhinged mind are the central focus of the film, there is no question that Bertolucci basks in exposing the deceptive beauty of the two female leads, especially Anna Quadri, who not only echoes Simonetta Vespucci in terms of her classic resplendent European beauty, but also some of the great divas of cinema history, including Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Indeed, as Robin Wood noted in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (1980) edited by Richard Roud, “In the context of Bertolucci’s work, Anna becomes especially interesting: her ‘decadent’ characteristics correspond closely to the Sternberg/Ophüls/Welles side of Bertolucci’s artistic allegiances, and that side is particularly pronounced in THE CONFORMIST, the most stylistically luxuriant film he has made […] But the stylistic wager of THE CONFORMIST is only partly to be explained in terms of superfluous rhetoric: many scenes—one thinks immediately of the dance-floor sequence, but there is no shortage of possible examples—are brought off with the superb assurance of an artist completely caught up in what he is doing, so that any discrepancy between effect and meaning disappears. The film, whether despite or because of its confusions, remains among the most fascinating of the past decade.” While Anna seems to be the auteur’s ideal women in terms of pulchritude of both physique and personality, Marcello’s wife Giulia—a sort of brain-dead guidette Louise Brooks—acts as Bertolucci’s idea of a sort of dangerously passive dumb broad as her contrived good-looks mask a sort of dangerous idiocy-cum-apathy towards the sort of politics that Bertolucci despises. Both painfully bourgeois and immune to the more ugly extremes of feministic degeneration, the dark-haired Giulia is in stark contrast to the ‘liberated’ Sapphic blonde Anna.  Still, neither woman can be described as upholding any sort of fascist ideal, though Giulia eventually gives birth to a child.  As for Anna, she is senselessly destroyed by the fascist machine because she happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, which is rather fitting in a film puts a premium on the absurdity of existence, especially when it comes to human interpersonal relationships.

 Not unlike ‘fascist’ padrone played Robert De Niro in his subsequent epic 1900, the titular character of The Conformist is a mentally and sexually feeble failure that manages to betray his real sole friend in the end. While I do not know all that much about Bertolucci’s tendencies toward betrayal, I think it is safe to say simply judging by his films that the auteur was a sexually degenerate pervert with a strange mind that was certainly lacking in terms of traditional male virtues and that his fascist characters were merely (possibly unconscious) stand-ins for himself. Indeed, with these fascists characters, the filmmaker projected all his own weaknesses and flaws onto the fascist enemy while celebrating an imagined neo-bolshevik ideal like the sexually potent and heroic commie peasant organizer portrayed by Gérard Depardieu in 1900. As the son of a successful Italian poet that used his padre’s connections to ignite his filmmaking career, Bertolucci was certainly bourgeois and hardly made of the same stern stuff worthy of a Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo painting. In fact, in his classic text Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present (1983), Peter Bondanella would confirm my suspicions when he argued, “ a coherent explanation of the birth of a Fascist, THE CONFORMIST fails just as certainly as did the theories of Wilhelm Reich in THE MASS PSYCHOLOGY OF FASCISM (1933) or of Erich Fromm in ESCAPE FROM FREEDOM (1941), works which obviously influenced Bertolucci’s adaptation of Moravia’s novel. By placing the ultimate origin of Marcello’s conformity and his desire for normality in the realm of Marcello’s unconscious (the lingering memory of a homosexual attack), Bertolucci undermines any Marxist explanation of the rise of Italian Fascism through class struggle or middle-class repression of the working class. Paradoxically, although Bertolucci asserts in a number of interviews that Marcello embodies the middle-class origins of Italian Fascism, there is no evidence in the film to support this position. One the contrary, the only milieu ever reflected in THE CONFORMIST, that of the decadent bourgeoisie, includes not only Marcello and his family but also the anti-Fascist Quadri couple as well. Anna Quadri’s lesbianism, as well as her husband’s obvious voyeuristic pleasure in observing her sexual escapades with members of her sex, mark the anti-Fascists of the picture as members of the same decadent class to which Marcello belongs.”  Needless to say, The Conformist is not the sort of film a real (lumpen)prole would direct, especially when you compare them to the bawdy flicks of real working-class auteur Sergio Citti like Ostia (1970), Casotto (1977) aka Beach House, and Due pezzi di pane (1979) aka Happy Hoboes.  Incidentally, like with Bertolucci, Pasolini co-penned Citti's debut Ostia.

A sort of bourgeois bohemian, Bertolucci seems very much typical of left-wingers from his class and generation in that his politics seem to be largely inspired self-loathing as opposed to any sort of organic sense of solidarity with the working-class.  Of course, such seemingly self-contradictory behavior is, historically speaking, nothing new.  Indeed, as Ted Kaczynski, who spent his entire academic career surrounded by bourgeois leftist types, once rightly wrote, “Many leftists have an intense identification with the problems of groups that have an image of being weak (women), defeated (American Indians), repellent (homosexuals), or otherwise inferior. The leftists themselves feel that these groups are inferior. They would never admit to themselves that they have such feelings, but it is precisely because they do see these groups as inferior that they identify with their problems.” Demonstrating that he is the sort of stereotypical leftist NPC that associates anything that is traditional and western as ‘fascistic,’ Bertolucci actually had the gall to state in a 1971 interview on French television, “Historical Fascism is dead, but middle class is always there, firmly in its place,” thus underscoring that, like with the weaklings of antifa today, the auteur had a sort of primal fear of a sort of imagined fascist bogeyman despite never ever actually experiencing real fascism. Of course, as Uncle Ted also wrote, “Leftists tend to hate anything that has an image of being strong, good and successful. They hate America, they hate Western civilization, they hate white males, they hate rationality. The reasons that leftists give for hating the West, etc., clearly do not correspond with their real motives. They SAY they hate the West because it is warlike, imperialistic, sexist, ethnocentric and so forth, but where these same faults appear in socialist countries or in primitive cultures, the leftist finds excuses for them, or at best he GRUDGINGLY admits that they exist; whereas he ENTHUSIASTICALLY points out (and often greatly exaggerates) these faults where they appear in Western civilization. Thus it is clear that these faults are not the leftist’s real motive for hating America and the West. He hates America and the West because they are strong and successful.”  Undoubtedly, what makes The Conformist antihero Marcello slightly more respectable than the average bourgeois degenerate (and, of course, absolutely loathsome to someone like Bertolucci) is that he opts to side with a powerful movement instead of taking the slave-morality route by identifying with a victim class.

Undoubtedly, the only reason that The Conformist manages to display any sort of empathy for Marcello due to the very fact he is an irrational failure, which Bertolucci seemed to greatly identify with (despite his later great success as a filmmaker). In fact, although eponymous protagonist of his later epic The Last Emperor (1987) is a Manchurian monarch, Bertolucci seemed to identity with this character as well for similar reasons.  Even in 1900—a film that almost rivals a Michael Bay flick in terms of its fiercely one-dimensional portrayal of villains—displays a sort of disgustingly morbid empathy for the pathetic fascist padrone played by De Niro.  As David Thomson speculated in his classic cinematic reference guide, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (1975) in regard to the scene where the ‘hero’ acts passively as his lover Anna is brutally killed, “The finale is passionate, whereas the logic of the film is to show that the man without passion is symptomatic of the modern world. In part, this may be because Bertolucci’s sympathy for the cold-hearted, isolated fascist hero was too great to deny his crucial action the elements of performance. The killing was, therefore, the crab’s dance, in response to the serpentine feminine dance earlier in the film that obliquely humiliates him. The idea of THE CONFORMIST, of this natural, unveil, but detached man, was graver and more penetrating that Bertolucci’s pleasure at cinematic expression.” In short, quite unlike his previous film Partner, which is full of distanciation and other then-vogue alienation techniques, The Conformist thankfully is not contaminated with too much Godard-inspired Brechtian bullshit and instead embraces a sort of morbid romantic melodrama that even NS auteur Viet Harlan could have appreciated, especially during the right darkly tragic climatic moments. Undoubtedly, hardcore avant-gardist like Jean-Marie Straub and Frans van de Staak would surely regard Bertolucci’s magnum opus as aesthetically ‘fascistic.’  After all, in terms of aesthetics and themes, The Conformist—a film where a man sacrifices love and feminine beauty for the good of a fascist regime—can be seen as a sort of post-WWII antifascist equivalent to Harlan's classic National Socialist melodrama Opfergang (1944).

It has been rightly said by various film critics, including American film scholar Millicent Marcus, that The Conformist is a sort of allegory for the triumphant rise and pathetically catastrophic fall of Italian fascism as epitomized by the film’s hero. Led by a terribly flawed chap by the name of Mussolini—a sort of failed Machiavellian Mafioso-like type that stole his ideas from much superior men like warrior-poet Gabriele D'Annunzio who proved to be a total disaster during WWII and who accomplished not much more than being Hitler’s failed guido bitch-boy—Fascist Italy largely seems like a catastrophic joke on retrospect. Undoubtedly, self-described “superfascist” Julius Evola—a ‘right-wing’ thinker that so impressed Mussolini with his somewhat quixotic racial ideas that he hired him to start a racial journal that ultimately blended Sorelianism with Aryo-Roman eugenics—would have provided intriguing (meta)political inspiration for a communist like Bertolucci, especially in terms of his critiques of modern Italians in comparison to their much nobler ancient Roman ancestors. Indeed, creating a dichotomy between the negative modern ‘Mediterranean’ type and the ancient ‘Roman’ type, Evola described the former as stereotypically (proudly) dishonest, noisy/loudmouthed, sentimental, overly defensive, extroverted and lecherous, and the latter as noble, stoic, self-critical, and introverted. Undoubtedly, the titular character of The Conformist seems to be have a less than ideal combination of traits from both groups as a sort of autistic neurotic Mediterranean nut-job. As Evola noted, “As is well known, during the Fascist era Italy attempted to start similar developments, whose most serious concern, though it was felt only by a minority, was to increasingly transform a ‘Mediterranean’ Italy into a ‘Roman’ Italy. An adequate integrating counterpart could have been the initial separation of Italy from her ‘Latin sisters’ and a reapproach to the German people, beyond the plane of mere political concerns.” Of course, as far as Europeans go, Italians and Germans have very little in common, hence the failure of this transformation, or as Evola himself reluctantly noted in the very same exact chapter of the same exact book in regard to the common perception among his countrymen, “In a previous chapter I mentioned the part played by anti-German prejudice in some patriotic Italian historiography influenced by Masonic and democratic-liberal ideology. This prejudice is also found in the cultural domain, and especially among those who cherish the myth of the Latin world […] Italians and Germans, it is claimed, will never understand each other. Our Latin civilization and mind-set stand in contrast with anything German.” It is also no coincidence that there is a scene in the film where the protagonist’s blind radio host friend Italo attempts to hype up the supposed “Prussian aspect” of Mussolini and supposed “Latin aspect” of Hitler, as it was ultimately a preposterous alliance between two very cultures. 

 Speaking of Evola, he was heavily influenced by the Austrian Jewish philosopher Otto Weininger’s classic text Geschlecht und Charakter (1903) aka Sex and Character, which, whether intentional or not (I'm going to have to assume the latter), seems to have been a bigger psychological influence on The Conformist than the sort of stereotypical anti-Occidental Judaic psychoanalysts like Freud and Reich that clearly heavily influenced Bertolucci’s lesser films like 1900. Although the film is somewhat Freudian in the sense that the protagonist is haunted by certain Oedipal conflicts that reach their peak when he takes part in the killing of a virtual ‘surrogate father’ in the form of his old professor friend, the film ultimately feels more Weininger-esque than overtly Freudian.  While I do somewhat doubt that Bertolucci ever read Weininger, the romance between lead Marcello Clerici and Anna Quadri is one of the rare cinematic examples of Weiningerian sexual compatibility. Believing that all people were to some degree ‘bisexual’ (e.g. a butch lesbian would have about 80% masculine traits/20% feminine traits), Weininger argued that people, including homosexuals, were naturally attracted to people with opposite (yet ultimately complimentary) sexual traits (for example, a male that is 90% male/10% female would most likely be attracted to a female that is 10% male/90% female).  As Weininger once wrote in regard to the tendency, “I once heard a bisexual man exlaim at the sight of a bisexually active actress with a slight hint of a beard, a deep sonorous voice, and almost no hair on her head: ‘What a gorgeous woman!’  To every man ‘woman’ means something different and yet the same; in ‘women’ every poet has celebrated something different and yet identical.”

While the film’s lead Marcello, who clearly has certain latent homosexual tendencies, is totally disgusted by his wife Giulia—a woman that is a sort of degenerate version of the archetype of the highly feminine submissive yet sexually insatiable housewife type—he virtually falls in love with the aggressive bisexual (or, possibly, even lesbian) Anna at first sight and his feelings are surely reciprocated, at least to some degree.  Indeed, despite being a deeply troubled latent homosexual, Marcello reacts to Anna because her aberrosexuality compliments his own (to the antihero's slight chagrin, Anna also demonstrates an attraction to Marcello's wife).  Of course, aside from not completely succumbing to raunchy Reichian retardation, The Conformist is nowhere near as sexually debasing as the director’s later films like 1900, which features full-frontal homosexual encounters between preteen boys and a sadomasochistic threesome of sorts involving Donald Sutherland, a fat chick, and a little boy that absurdly climaxes with the latter having his brains bashed in against a wall. Needless to say, The Conformist is not only more aesthetically ambitious than 1900, but also considerably more intellectually, psychologically, and (meta)politically nuanced. In that sense, it is no surprise that Peter Bondanella would note in his text Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present (1983) that, “With his adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s THE CONFORMIST, Bertolucci produced what is perhaps his most visually satisfying film, although many reviewers and critics question its ideological coherence.” Only really superficially ‘antifascist,’ especially compared to audaciously aberrant yet idiotic agitprop like 1900, the film’s (anti)hero just as easily could have been a commie, which is (arguably) one of the film’s messages, hence the (arguably) ironical title.

 While Bertolucci would go on to direct much bigger films with much bigger budgets, The Conformist is unquestionably his mostly aesthetically refined and most mesmerizing in terms of mise-en-scène, as if the auteur was attempting to reconcile the films of Orson Welles and Werner Schroeter for the target peasant audience of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972).  Of course, it would be virtually criminal to not mention the imperative contributions of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti to the film (in fact, I do not think it is a coincidence that both men worked on Bertolucci's greatest films).  A cultivated homosexual that also worked as an art designer on Visconti's Death in Venice (1971),  Scarfiotti arguably deserves more credit than anyone for elevating The Conformist to the level of high cinematic art.  Interestingly, the auteur once confessed in a 1972 interview with Marilyn Goldin when asked if the film was Sternbergian, “Yes, indeed. Because in [THE SPIDER’S] STRATEGY I was more influenced by life, while in THE CONFORMIST I was more influenced by movies. One could say the point of departure was cinema; and the cinema I like is Sternberg, Ophüls and Welles.” Needless to say none of these auteur filmmakers directed films for peasant audiences, as they all demonstrated the very same sort of aristocratic decadence that Bertolucci decried throughout his career. Revealing his own hypocritical Oedipal tendencies, Bertolucci actually stated in the same exact interview, “My own father was anti-Fascist, but obviously I feel that the whole bourgeoisie is my father. And Fascism was invented by the petit bourgeois […] On top of that, THE CONFORMIST is a story about me and Godard. When I gave the professor Godard’s phone number and address, I did it for a joke, but afterwards I said to myself, ‘Well, maybe all that has some significance. . . .I’m Marcello and I make Fascist movies and I want to kill Godard who's a revolutionary, who makes revolutionary movies and who was my teacher.” Aside from being admirably honest in regard to his deeply personal motivations, including his sort of cringe-worthy class self-loathing, for making the film, Bertolucci’s remark also reveals his longing to kill his own sort of surrogate cinematic father in a film that is ultimately dually (and even schizophrenically) Oedipal. In that sense, it is no surprise that the antihero lacks the strength to personally kill his own father figure and instead really just wants to destroy his own mind and soul in the end. Indeed, somehow I doubt Bertolucci would have been a card-carrying commie had he born a couple decades before during a time when Marxism was not vogue and the trains ran on time. Needless to say, Bertolucci would have probably been a sort of Italian Hans-Jürgen Syberberg in terms of critical and academic neglect had he demonstrated more of an affinity for someone like Evola instead of Antonio Gramsci, but I digress.  As to Bertolucci's reference to wanting to kill his filmic father figure Godard, it is somewhat ironic that he would choose a Moravia novel to accomplish such an admirably lofty task.  After all, not unlike Bertolucci with The Conformist, Le Mépris (1963) aka Contempt—an adaptation of Moravia's existentialist novel Il disprezzo (1954)—is oftentimes (rightly) described by critics as Godard's magnum opus.

 In his classic text The Rise and Fall of Elites: An Application of Theoretical Sociology—a classic sociopolitical text that proved to be an imperative influence on Mussolini in terms of his struggle to takeover Italy—Vilfredo Pareto noted, “It is a known fact that almost all revolutions have been the work, not of the common people, but of the aristocracy, and especially of the decayed part of the aristocracy.” Of course, the same can be said of revolutionary cinema, as Bertolucci’s one-time hero Godard, who actually came from a family of anti-Semitic Vichy supporters, was certainly not a member of the working-class yet he dedicated a good portion of his career to defecating out mostly worthless (neo)Marxist agitprop. In the same book, Pareto argues that, “Elites often become effete. They preserve a certain passive courage, but lack active courage,” which is certainly a good way to describe not only the titular character of The Conformist, but also Bertolucci himself. In fact, I would argue that in no other film does Bertolucci demonstrate that he is the politically passive-aggressive auteur par excellence, but at least in this context it works in his favor due to the antihero's conflicted psyche and incapacity to take direct decisive action. Seeing as the film concludes with it hinting that the antihero has finally ‘went over to the other side’ and embraced his latent homosexuality now that fascism is finally dead, one can interpret this as a sort of subtle confession by Bertolucci that anyone could have become a ‘fascist’ during those repressive times, including his perverted self (surely, it is no coincidence that his late era film The Dreamers (2003) is not much more than a gleefully gratuitous celebration of the sexual degeneracy of the post-WWII generation and the insipidly deleterious politics that accompanied such degeneracy).  Either way, the film (unwittingly) confirms that the post-WWII era is, by definition, degenerate.

 One of the most interesting aspects I discovered upon researching The Conformist is the divergent critiques and analyses of the film. Undoubtedly, one of the most interesting I found was by queer film theorist Parker Tyler, who argued in his book Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies (1972) in regard to Bertolucci's masterpiece that, “It is a brilliantly directed and photographed film—so stylish in performance that the crypto-fascist sex syndrome it portrays seems very true yet is so subtly woven with emotional and sexual ambiguity as to block the critic who wishes to assess the precise role played by homosexuality. The hero […] is as false a heterosexual as he is a homosexual […] Is he cowardly and treacherous because of his sex neurosis? Moravia’s antifascist purpose seems to have been to associate fascist sadism and amoralism with a particular sex complex in the male. This is embodied in a fucked-up hetero who—going by the plot line—is really homo […] Further, the director Bertolucci has contrived from all this such a smooth, flexible, fast-moving melodrama that character motivation is swept along as bright blur with incidentally piercing insights.” And, of course, this is the brilliance of a film directed by an auteur that is not typically known for being subtle—whether it be the (meta)political and/or psychosexual (notably, according to, Gideon Bachmann, Bertolucci was, “rescue[d] by [Carl] Jung” right before he made the film, which might explain the almost metaphysical essence of the film).

 From there, Taylor complains, “After due consideration, can we avoid formulating the moral that offbeat sex is schematic in being a fated part of the contagious moral vice which fascism is widely assumed to be? That, for its part, homosexuality can also be a thing of grace, a separate field of gravity, a poet’s and philosopher’s privilege and even (as in the classic pastorals) a lover’s peaceful pursuit, seems to have been inconceivable in Mussolini’s Italy. Or so THE CONFORMIST and similar movies would have us believe; even DEATH IN VENICE, whose era is the nineteenth century and whose Homeros is very young, beautiful, and untainted, makes turncoat homosexuality a symbolic disease.” Of course, it is interesting that Taylor references a film by Visconti as he conveniently forgets the auteur's classic epic melodrama The Damned (1969), reminds one in its savagely hyper homoerotic depiction of the so-called Night of the Long Knives that the NSDAP’s original paramilitary outfit, the Sturmabteilung (SA)—a group led by a subversive sod by the name of Ernst Röhm that demonstrated he was more radical than Bertolucci or any of his contemporaries when he once pridefully remarked, “Since I am an immature and wicked man, war and unrest appeal to me more than good bourgeois order. Brutality is respected, the people need wholesome fear. They want to fear someone. They want someone to frighten them and make them shudderingly submissive”—was completely led by well-known homosexuals and they certainly were not stereotypical pansy poofters, but I digress.  While Tyler certainly brings up some interesting points, he seems to ignore the fact that, contrary to the gatekeepers of the LGBT pink gestapo, ‘gay’ is not a prepackaged one-size-fits-all identity and that the film's protagonist is more a victim of childhood trauma than his sexuality.  In fact, had Marcello been more comfortable in his gayness, he might have been a fairly ferocious fascist and lived a more Edmund Heines-esque existence.

 Ultimately, The Conformist is less about homosexuality than ostensible fascistic nightmare of having to live in a society that has actual standards where everyone is expected to be guided by the same moral compass, hence why Bertolucci would once remark that the film is set, “ the present, but it's the present dressed as the past.”  In the very last scene of the film in what seems to allude to the present and thus the so-called sexual revolution, counterculture movement, and student protest movement, the film’s protagonist is depicted with flames illuminating his face while he is literally behind bar as a completely naked street hustler lies nearby. In short, with fascism dead, Marcello can now be himself and get fucked in the ass with pride, or so Bertolucci—a supposedly heterosexual man that filled many of his films with explicit homosexual content, including of the prepubescent sort—wants you to believe. Needless to say, it is quite fitting that Bertolucci died the same year exact year that right-ring strongman Matteo Salvini—a real mensch that seems like he could by the grandson of Fascio Special Agent Manganiello—took power to repair everything that the filmmaker’s generation so zealously and thoughtlessly destroyed.  Indeed, despite what one might think of the film's aesthetic value as what is arguably one of the greatest and most important cinematic works of its era, there is no denying that it is a strangely mercurial reflection of a sick society and era that is in steady decline.

As Pareto noted long ago in regard to the paradoxically spiritually necrotic character of priveleged yet self-loathing bourgeois leftist types like Bertolucci, “Our bourgeoisie spends energy and money only to aid the enemy.  Societies to help the vicious, the incapable, and the degenerate, spring up in extraordinary numbers; and among all these societies the bourgeoisie did not have the spirit to establish one, I say a single one, to defend their own rights.  But then, do they have rights?  It seems that they do not, for they are ashamed to speak of them.  It is the owners who negate their right of ownership and donate money to the People's Universities, which teach that everything should be taken from the owners.  Viewed from a certain point, it can be said that in effect they have no rights, because they do not know how to defend them.”  Like a virtual archetypal caricature of the spiritually sick bourgeois that Pareto speaks of, Bertolucci even once confessed in a 1978 interview with Jean A. Gili in regard to his film 1900,  “Likewise I consider to be communist the feeling of guilt that I experience as a bourgeois—a feeling which, according to some conformists, makes the film appear to be manichean [...]  As for me, the fact that I have a visceral feeling about my bourgeois origins, the fact that I accept the burden of a certain type of guilt which is not directly mine but belongs to my social class and those who support that class, is also a communist idea.”  Of course, what Bertolucci's confessions reveal to me is that, not unlike modern antifa members and trust-fund gutter-punks and squatters, he was a literal social degenerate compelled by a sort of passive Todestrieb, hence why he created socially, politically, and sexually deleterious cinematic works and never had children despite being married to no less than three different women (notably, as Max Nordau highlighted in his classic text Entartung (1892) aka Degeneration, degenerate artists tend not to reproduce and thus unwittingly solve the societal problem of their own tainted bloodlines).  In that sense, I think that The Conformist, which is only superficially like Moravia's source novel, can only be adequately interpreted as a sort of semi-cryptic schizophrenic internal dialogue by Bertolucci about what it might be like to be a fascist despite being psychologically ill-equipped and lacking the intrinsic desire for self-preservation and continuing one's genetic line (while the antihero does have a child, it seems rather absurd that he and his wife are parents).  Of course, just by directing a film of such a caliber as The Conformist, Bertolucci certainly accomplished more than most people do in their lives—whether they be Evolian neo-fascists or Limousine Marxists.  Not unlike his virtual spiritual predecessors like the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who also disgraced their social backgrounds, Bertolucci managed to achieve greatness in spite of his degeneracy, henceforth demonstrating that it is probably preferable to have despoiled bourgeois or noble blood to healthy peasant blood, at least if you are an artist.

-Ty E

No comments: