From a political thriller (“Z”) I am moving on to a political gangster movie. Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Il conformista (The Conformist)” is a story about a hitman working for the secret police in fascist Italy who is in France in 38 to kill a dissident professor. But it is also, and probably more, the story about the moral aspects of following the system when the system is rotten.
The most remarkable element to this movie is the extent to which it is told in a non-linear form. In fact, it takes non-linearity to a whole new level where you have to keep your focus to make sense of what is going on. The first half of the movie is a blur for me and only in hindsight am I starting to make sense of this part. The problem is that the storyline follows several tracks with flashbacks within flashbacks and with cross clipping that made me dizzy at times.
One track is Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant, again!) and the “special agent” (gunman) Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) busy chasing a car. Another is Marcello preparing to marry a girl, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) in order to become a “normal person” and applying for work in the fascist secret police. There is a track where Marcello visits his parents and one from his childhood where he thinks he has killed a man who is making sexual advances on him.
Eventually these tracks coalesce into the story of Marcello proving his place in the secret police by going to Paris on pretense of a honeymoon, but actually to kill his old university professor, Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio).
Marcello is a strange and conflicted character. He is driven by an eagerness to conform to the ideal of a good fascist, with the right opinions and a cynicism that at times seems honest, but at other times seems like an uncomfortable mask. The meeting with the professor and even more, his young wife Anna Quadri (Dominique Sandra) reveals him as being unresolved and fumbling. While pretending to move on as planned toward Manganiello, he also looks like a man desperately searching for a way to avoid the confrontation and preferably to be somewhere else entirely. Especially after he starts a seemingly unmotivated sexual relationship with Anna. This is a part I still do not understand. Does he know her from the past? Were they once an item?
Whether or not he actually regrets the murder, he resigns to the job and let it unfold. Thereby proving to be a good fascist. But what then when fascism is no more? What will he tell himself?
This moral conflict and dilemma in a man who caves into the system is the central point to the movie and reveals Marcello as a weak and spineless man, but maybe not so different from many other people.
The cinematography of “The Conformist” is very impressive. It does an excellent job at reconstructing the thirties and the colors and lighting are used masterfully. Even when I was most confused, I could always lean back and enjoy the pictures.
The sound side was much less impressive. The Italians never used sound stages but dubbed the sound in later. I know this is a common practice even today in many parts of the world, but I never got used to it and the particular feel it gives a movie and I do not think this dubbing worked so well in “The Conformist”. This stands out particularly because the quality of the rest of the movie is so high. It is so obvious that it is not the actor actually speaking and the sound collage is sometimes entirely disconnected from the picture. Quite distracting.
Still, it is one of those movies that keep rummaging around in the head for days after watching it and I am certain a second viewing will make a lot more of it fall into place. Which may be a good idea because there are still too many loose ends for me. Non-linearity should be used carefully.