(Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci) (1970)
Italian Film Festival, Adelaide, 2019
“Judas hanged himself, or at any rate thought he could not avoid hanging himself, because the people who had suggested the betrayal and paid him for it did not then have the courage to support and justify him; but he would not kill himself nor give himself over to despair, because behind him…he saw the crowds collected in the squares to applaud the man under whose command he served, and, implicitly, to justify him, the man who obeyed orders. His final thought was that he was receiving nothing, in the absolute sense, for what he was doing. No thirty pieces of silver for him. It was just a matter of duty, as Orlando would say. The analogy changed colour and faded away, leaving behind nothing but a faint trace of proud, satisfying irony. If anything, he concluded, what mattered was that the comparison should have occurred to him, that he should have worked it out, and, for a moment, found it just.”
Action and reaction; if you want to see how post-war Italy reacted to Mussolini’s fall, check out the first part of The Secret of Santa Vittoria. The petty officials who imposed fascist rule were subject to reprisals aplenty, and sensible Italians dispensed with any lingering admiration for Il Duce, embracing the new paradigm. 25 years after their warrior statesman was hanging upside-down from a lampost at a Milanese service station, Bertolucci produced his masterpiece* based on Alberto Moravia’s superb 1951 novel (from which the quote above is drawn). In this compelling character study, Marcello Clericci is ‘available,’ aching to do duty by whoever will accept and foster his fervent desire to normalise.
And why the fervour? Well, how about a drug-addicted Mother and a lunatic Dad; the belief that as a child he murdered the over-sexed chauffuer; the carrying of latent longings and feminine leanings that must be and are ruthlessly suppressed, Marcello is burdened not by guilt (his po-faced confession to a prurient priest is a delight) so much as by the drive to fit-in. As a member of the fascist secret police, given the important task of tracking down and nixing his old College Professor in 1930s Paris, Marcello (beautifully under-played by Jean-Louis Trintignant in a rich and subtle turn) is a perfect cipher.
Bertolucci’s film is what Hollywood would hate: a mixture of gritty realism and expressionistic touches, and plenty of weird decadence; full of jump cuts, enigmatic glances, Bergman-like still shots, flashbacks and flash-sideways, The Conformist is splendid albeit a tad talky and draggy at times. It is shot and coloured beautifully (and strategically). A fair part of the picture turns on Marcello’s loveless marriage to good-time girl Guilia (Stefania Sandretti) who finds fun with his mistress, Anna Quadri (a regal and feisty Dominique Sanda), who conveniently is married to Marcello’s College mentor and enemy-of-the-State Luca Quadri. Hanging about meanwhile is Marcello’s muscleman, Manganiello (Gastone Moschin – he was Don Fanucci in The Godfather II) who is terrific as an enthusiastic embracer of fascist thuggery.
The film is ultimately Marcello’s however: the ghastly ease with which he turns-on his former Masters once the wind has changed is beautifully done (and perhaps a dark take on Italy’s own historical “deceptive mirage.”)[* The Conformist may only be rivalled by Berolucci’s film of the same year, The Spider’s Stratagem]