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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Browning Cinema screens another hit: Bertolucci’s ‘The Conformist’

Trey Paine | The Observer

“Taxi Driver,” “American Psycho,” “Clockwork Orange” — men tend to lump movies like these into one post-facto category: movies that make them say “he’s literally me,” “he’s just like me ‘fr’” or some other variation on that theme.

At first, Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” seems like it might fit this mold. Our protagonist is Marcello Clerici, an eager new member of the fascist secret police in Italy.

Like Alex from “Clockwork Orange,” he’s distinguished from the other characters by an appreciation of high culture and a high IQ. He’s a classics scholar, and one character genuinely declares, “He was the best student ever!

Like in “American Psycho” when the serial killer Patrick Bateman sarcastically bemoans apartheid, the nuclear arms race, terrorism and world hunger, Clerici also cynically performs morality. Heeding his petite-bourgeoisie fiancee’s demands, he receives the sacrament of reconciliation, but in his confession he lambasts the priest and threatens him with violence in order to receive absolution.

Like Travis Bickle, the taxi driver in Martin Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver,” he perceives depravity everywhere he looks, and it drives him into a furious rage. For Bickle, it’s prostitution, and for Clerici, it’s homosexuality.

What keeps “The Conformist” from becoming fodder for clips on Instagram Reels like other “he’s literally me” movies is that Bertolucci depicts this sort of man realistically: he’s the least likable character in the entire film.

He’s smarter than his wife Guilia and his partner Manganiello. Guilia’s foolishness and the actress Stefania Sandrelli’s beauty, though, make her far more charming than her husband. Next to Manganiello, Clerici may be an intellectual, but he seems like a pathetic coward in comparison.

Professor Quadri, whom Clerici is tasked with killing, is a trusting man. He lacks Clerici’s pessimism, and while this ultimately gets him killed, it endears him to the audience. The list goes on. Clerici is so unpleasant that we find ourselves preferring the fascist ideologue Italo, the morphine-addicted mother and the clinically insane father to him.

Clerici is not even a particularly good fascist. He betrays the professor, but once the betrayal is complete and Clerici has his target in his grasp, he’s too much of a coward to finish the job. He makes Manganiello do the dirty work. Once the fascist regime collapses, he doesn’t hesitate as he gives up Italo to an anti-fascist mob and runs away.

This is how the movie makes its anti-fascist argument. At first Clerici comes off as smart and strong, but by the end we realize he —  like all fascists — is compensating for his weakness, and we’re repulsed by him and by fascism.

Even without this poignant narrative structure, the movie would be fun just to look at with the subtitles off. “The Conformist” has look very different from Pasolini’s “Il Decameron” (screened at Browning two weeks ago), which is sometimes a little ad hoc in its cinematography. It also differs from “Death in Venice” (playing at Browning this week), where every inch of every shot is covered in props, is in focus and is rendered in technicolor.

Everything Bertolucci does with the camera and on set evokes fascism. Every room in the Italy of “The Conformist” is massive, empty and hewn from marble. When the plot takes us to Paris, the bohemian apartments full of wicker chairs and houseplants feel like a breath of fresh air. Choices like these, and some smart moves with the lighting, reinforce what he’s doing with the plot and the characters.

There are some loose ends — e.g. a subplot which implies Clerici is fascist because he was molested — but overall “The Conformist” is a hit. The Browning Cinema at DPAC picked a great third installment for their “Learning Beyond the Classics: Early 70s Italian Cinema” series, and you should consider coming to the next four. There’s yet to be dud.