A still from “The Conformist.”

On Bertolucci: When Can We Separate Good Art From Bad Artists?

Bertolucci’s 1970 masterpiece “The Conformist” is a potent masterpiece on the monstrosities wrought by fascism.

by Rachel Rabbit White
Nov 28 2018, 6:18pm

A still from “The Conformist.”

Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 masterpiece The Conformist is an intense meditation on the connection between violence, sex, fascism, and sexual violence. Shot when Bertolucci was only 28, the film demonstrates an expressionist use of blue and golden filters, creating a dreamy atmosphere that makes it seem like the sky itself is more saturated for all the pain brought by a fascist monster.

At the time of an artist’s death, biography takes immediate precedence in the assessment of their work. It’s a process that happens quickly, through the reactions of the press and, now, social media. Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci has always been most well-known U.S. for his 1972 movie Last Tango in Paris: an erotic flick with an infamous rape scene that challenged censorship laws and was shown along porn films in “seedy” theaters. And after his death on Monday, it seems his legacy will still center on this movie. In 2013, Bertolucci confessed he and Marlon Brando came up with the idea to shoot a scene in which Brando lubricates himself with butter and assaults the protagonist, played by Maria Schneider, without telling her. He wanted her reaction, “as a girl,” Bertolucci said.

For Schneider, it was a painful experience for which she would never forgive the director, saying that even if it was just one take, she felt “a little raped.” Her pain indelibly tarnishes the movie, making its male-centric perspective ridiculous, tone-deaf, and dated. The less that’s said about Last Tango in Paris, the better—it’s a bad movie. But in cinephile circles, it isn’t forgotten that, along with Lina Wertmüller and Vittorio De Sica, Bertolucci made some of the most beautiful anti-fascist films in Italian cinema. In another of his anti-fascist movies, 1900, Bertolucci says through one character: “Fascists are not like mushrooms, born in one night, no. The bosses planted them, loved them, paid them. And with the fascists, the bosses have been earning more and more, to the point when they don't even know what to do with the money. And so, they invented war. And they sent us to Africa, to Russia, to Greece, to Albany, to Spain…. But we are always the ones who pay. Who pays? The proletariat, the peasants, the workers, the poor.”

I want to focus on a masterpiece like The Conformist. Great art shouldn’t be taken away from the public. No matter how abominable of a person the artist is, his works (because the horrible artist is almost always male) don’t belong to him anymore. They belong to us. They are ours, and we are entitled to them. It gives too much power to our abusers to give them the power to stop us from enjoying art, or anything really. It is a disservice to our culture to privilege and discuss only a bad work, like Last Tango, because it’s exemplary of the artist’s moral failings, while ignoring a movie like The Conformist, which combines artistic accomplishments with with a clear and progressive political vision.

The Conformist, based on a novel by Alberto Moravia, tells the story of Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a young and ambitious fascist in 1938 who joins the secret police in a plot to approach and murder his former college professor, a now exiled resistance member in Paris. Bertolucci shows no sympathy for his protagonist, the movie is a clinical study, as cold and geometric as Vittorio Storaro’s masterful lighting, of what Adorno and Horkheimer have named the authoritarian personality.

Marcello is depicted as nothing but a shallow and cruel man. He teases animals and mocks the weak. His only niceties are those of deference to custom and power. He’s also obsessed by a desire to be “normal.” As a boy, he was the victim of bullying by schoolmates, and of sexual assault by a limo driver played by a frail and effeminate Pierre Clementi. The driver attracts the young Marcello to his room with the excuse that he’ll show the child a gun. In the room, the driver makes a move but Marcello reacts violently, grabbing the gun, shooting the driver, and jumping out of the window. Recalling the event many years later during a routine confession to a priest before his wedding, Marcello is surprised he never experienced any regret from murdering a man.

Marcello doesn’t feel “normal” but strives symbolically win that sense of belonging. The thesis of The Conformist is that abuse weakens the ego to the point a person becomes too fragile to decide what to value. All they’re left with is obedience to norms. But obedience is never enough, and the uncontrollable, polymorphous, queer territory of sexual desires becomes, under fascism, a locus of suspicion. Marcello has a rare moment of clarity when the priest keeps pressing him on his sexual life, asking if he gave in to the limo driver’s seduction, if he had homosexuals encounters after it, what his sexual life had been following the encounter. Infuriated, Marcello replies that it’s as if having sex was worse than murdering someone.

Marcello never questions his need for normality, even if he is never surrounded by it. Normality is something that he projects onto an abstract other, a mysterious they, while everyone around him is flawed in a peculiar way. His best friend is blind, his mother a morphine addict, his father went insane from the guilt for having been a torturer and an assassin for Mussolini. Marcello describes his wife Giulia with his usual spite, as a mediocre woman “all bedroom and kitchen.” But in her naive obedience, she is also the victim of abuse. She confesses, to a callous Marcello, that she was raped by a 60 year old family friend when she was 15. As Marcello unbuttons her blouse and grabs her breasts, she confesses that the “relationship” went on for a six chilling years, with the connivance of her mother.

The only “normal” person in The Conformist seems to be Manganiello, the fascists operator assigned from HQ to aid Marcello in his mission to murder the professor. He functions as a sort of superego for Marcello, constantly following him, reminding him of his goal, pushing him through any doubt. He has been fighting for more than a decade, and embodies the ideal officer of the law. He values only two things: duty and family. He’s the working man alienated from his fellow man and transformed into an instrument of control by the power of the upper classes.

There is a sense of bankruptcy around Marcello, an irredeemable sadness, an inability to feel joy or love, and a resentment for those around him who can. His assassination target, Professor Quadri, and his young (bisexual) wife Anna, are examples of a joyful reaction to fascism. They react by refusing deference to authority, by choosing the values they believe in, and organizing to defend what is just. They realize Marcello (and Giulia) are there as fascists, as a danger to themselves, but hope that through their favors, patience, and kindness they can pacify the former student and his wife and escape their fate. They invite the couple out to dinner, and afterwards Giulia and Anna dance together, in a romantic and dramatic embrace.

The fascist’s wife is seduced by the couple: laughing at their jokes, giving into Anna’s advances, even kissing Professor Quadri. After the women dance together, becoming a center of attention, the crowd explodes in a group dance, expressing a communion between all present, holding hands as they jig into the street and back into the bar surrounding a cold and embarrassed Marcello, who is incapable of joining them.

After the party, Giulia tells Marcello that the professor’s wife has invited them to their beautiful country villa, a villa surrounded by the woods, with no one around, so that you can make love outside, in the snow, without a care in the world. Marcello decides this is the perfect spot to carry out the assassination.

There is very little romanticism in Bertolucci’s vision, but there is plenty of hope. The world is controlled by lowly opportunists and cynical bureaucrats who arrest those who oppose them and punish any form of dissidence with death. Once fascism crumbles, the conformists who profited under it quickly turn into vocal anti-fascists, denouncing their former comrades. And yet the spectre of justice and solidarity haunts the movie. In a surreal scene, a woman selling flowers with two children stalks Marcello through the streets of Paris singing “The Internationale,” making sure that he hears the lyrics: “Stand up, damned of the Earth / Stand up, prisoners of starvation [...] The world is about to change its foundation / We are nothing, let us be all.”

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Bernardo Bertolucci