Culture Your Ass: “The Conformist”

Written by Barfoot July 27, 2011

“The Conformist” was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci who also directed “Last Tango in Paris“, where the lead (Marlon Brando) refused to learn his lines, scattering the script about the set for easy glimpses during shooting. Of course that film is known for its sexual decadency and being a classic of cinema. “The Conformist” is much less known, but its use of colour, Italian cinematography and nonlinear narrative sets it as a defining film in Bertolucci’s career.

“The Conformist” is about conformity, oddly enough. Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is living in fascist Italy under the reign of Mussolini. He is an atheist, a murder, a fornicator and man with no guilt of these sins.  However, there is a deep need within Marcello–a deep need to obtain the social norms surrounding him: marriage, children, God and the bureaucratic middle-class of fascism. Marcello’s acquisition of a wife and reintroduction to a religious life, although founded on pretences, is persuasive to himself and others. His vocation however keeps him from fulfilling normalcy as he works for the fascist secret police and is now sent to Paris to assassinate his old anti-facist professor.

For me this film is not just about the broad social-psychological conflict of the society and the self, but rather, what happens if the society in which you  live in is so utterly incongruent with your own beliefs and actions? Marcello felt this, and thus the film’s main conflict is Marcello’s personal dissonance.

If I may take the liberty to digest the film in the context of its surrounding era, we can take Europe before and during the Second World War and look at the plethora of revolutions and paradigmatic shifts nations experienced in extremely short periods of time (Italy, Germany and any  of the invaded countries). That is to say that Marcello’s struggle to conform is most likely homogeneous to anyone living under these blitz-krieged, or just socially-blitzed, political systems. These systems shot to power as quick as lightning and were followed by a thunder of new nationally redefining mores and beliefs.

How were people to conform so quickly to something so new? Well, one of the points being made at the end of this film is that, with the decline of the Italian national might and with the violent death of Mussolini, a society pushed will pushback. Like Marcello, when they are forced to conform, they will did so dishonestly, with conflict or fail all together.

You should watch this movie; it is more than a critique of the political/social life of World War II fascist Europe. There is beauty in the colour, the cinematography and the non-linear narrative. I find this film holds your attention similarly to AMC’s Mad Men. Like Don Draper, Marcello as a protagonist is hemingway–stoic, yet brooding and complex.


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