FILM CLUB - The Conformist

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FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby Goat Boy » 14 Nov 2010, 14:34

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The Conformist, Il conformista - Bernardo Bertolucci 1970

Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist examines the roots of fascism not through political machinations but from an intimate, psycho-sexual point of view, exploring one mans motivations for joining the Italian fascist party and how this is clearly rooted in his traumatic childhood and repressed sexuality. Jean-Louis Trintignant is Marcello Clerici, a bureaucratic cypher born into a wealthy family that appears to have all the privileges of the bourgeois elite, however, the unsmiling Marcello has the look of a perpetually troubled man. His immaculately dressed exterior hiding huge emotional baggage that is gradually revealed through a series of flashbacks: a lonely, unhappy childhood spent isolated from his parents and bullied by his peers as well as the guilt and confusion arising from an allegedly brief homosexual experience with the families limo driver and his only friend growing up. Furthermore, as an adult he is also haunted by the secret shame of a mentally ill Father (possibly brought on by syphilis) and a morphine addicted Mother. It's these contradictions that will lead to his involvement in the murder of an outspoken Professor now exiled in a wintry Paris as the adult Marcello craves what he never experienced growing up: normality, acceptance, security and a 'family'. The final scenes are especially sad and tragic as we find Marcello living the 'normal' life with the wife and child that he has always craved yet still unhappy and isolated. As the dictatorship falls in 1943 Marcello arranges to meet his old, blind friend, Italo, from his party days in the street when he overhears an older gentleman trying to seduce a young man. Shocked Marcello realises this man is the limo driver from his childhood whom he presumed was dead. Outraged and showing real, visceral emotion for the first time he denounces the man as a homosexual and fascist before turning his anger on Italo who is left to fend for himself as a crowd of people metaphorically sweep him away. On his own after the limo driver has fled the scene he stares longingly at the young man left behind; alone, lonely and once again an outcast.

You can't discuss The Conformist without spending some time talking about its visual style and if you get the opportunity to see it on the big screen then please, please do as it's really something else. The design and style alone of the film marks it as something a bit special: the massive, empty rooms of the fascist buildings expertly depict the dehumanising impact of their ideology; all shadowy Neo-Roman columns, brutal angles and gently surreal images of giant busts and Fascist iconography. Robotic party members walk down its endless, lifeless corridors like ghosts adrift in a world bereft of feelings and emotions whilst weirdly oblique, askew camera angles accentuate the inherent, unnatural strangeness of the world Marcello longs to be part of. What Marcello’s former Professor calls the ‘shadows of reality’.
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Compare this with the warmth of the wonderfully erotic dance scenes in Paris between Clerici and the Professor's wives. It's in these moments that the difference between the two worlds is so starkly obvious. Notice also how Clerici positively squirms as the French gather tightly around him in the dancehall; their warmth and joy is completely lost on him. Special mention as well to the more surreal scenes that give The Conformist an expressionistic edge that works brilliantly alongside the totalitarianism world of the Fascists. For example the wonderful scene in Clerici's Fathers marbled asylum that explicitly shows the madness lurking beneath the surface of the new society and that almost apocalyptic spookiness is atmospherically expanded in the shots of a deserted Rome that increasingly resembles a ghost town. The cinematography by Vittorio Storaro is jaw-droppingly stunning and rightly lauded. Fewer films look as richly sumptuous and its visual style and trademarks can be seen in everything from the Godfather to the Coen’s Millers Crossing: from chilly, autumnal browns and creams to the steely January greys and disinterested blues of Paris and Rome to the shocking reds that reveal the hidden and not so hidden sexual desires of the characters.

Some memorable scenes? The murder in the woods is something of a tour de force from Bertolucci: the impotency and sheer coldness of Clerici as he watches the professor and his wife being murdered is beautifully played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who’s remarkably subtle performance is a career highlight. Any moment where the scene stealing, fabulously reptilian Manganiello weaves his sinister magic is fantastic. I love the more dream like intensity of certain moments like the wonderfully strange Dance Of The Blind attended by Marcello and Italo which has obvious echoes of Last Year At Marienbad (as do the beautifully composed scenes in the fascist buildings). Kudos also to the then 22 year old (!) Dominique Sanda who brilliantly balances the role of dutiful wife and bisexual flirt whose charm seduces not only Clerici but his rather dim witted wife as well and it’s only with her that Marcello briefly appears ‘normal’. It’s also clear her character is the only one who really senses the tragedy that is unfolding and as such she is the heart and soul of the movie which only makes her memorable reaction to Clerici as he sits passively and impotently in the car even more devastating.

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What The Conformist shows us the extreme lengths people will go to fit in, and belong. As Marcello tells the priest during his confession, “I’m going to build a life that’s normal”. It examines the ease at which an individual’s morality can be perverted by sexual repression, self loathing and guilt, and how this can be manipulated by those in power for their own pernicious ends. Bertolucci asks us 'how can a world built on lies and deceit; of hidden shame, sexual guilt and repression possibly be 'normal'?'. How is Marcello expected to become a healthy, well adjusted adult after being born into a world where a ‘normal’ man is expected to ‘turn his head to see a beautiful woman’. Bizarrely the priest who Marcello confesses his sins to is more perturbed by him kissing a man when he was 13 than his involvement in murder and fascism. At every level poor Marcello's world is deformed and corrupted. He is a victim, worthy of our sympathy but ultimately impossible to warm to.

Apologies for the lateness but I hope the extra time has given people a chance to watch this incredible film. Your thoughts and opinions BCB are very welcome.....
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Re: FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 14 Nov 2010, 15:42

That is an excellent bit of writing Goat Boy. I watched the film last just about a year ago, and you already are making me want to revisit it.
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Re: FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby The Modernist » 14 Nov 2010, 16:00

Davey the Fat Boy wrote:That is an excellent bit of writing Goat Boy. I watched the film last just about a year ago, and you already are making me want to revisit it.


Why don't you then? This is the point of film club. :)

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Re: FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 14 Nov 2010, 16:42

Admiral G wrote:
Davey the Fat Boy wrote:That is an excellent bit of writing Goat Boy. I watched the film last just about a year ago, and you already are making me want to revisit it.


Why don't you then? This is the point of film club. :)


Yeah - I was going to skip this one because I'd seen it so recently. But now I'm in the mood to see it again.
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Re: FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby The Write Profile » 15 Nov 2010, 08:32

Here's my rather rambling post on it from a while back:

The Conformist


Has such nastiness ever looked so beautiful? Criminally unavaliable on DVD for years (and even now it still hasn't got the Criterion Collection treatment it obviously deserves), it's not only Bernardo Bertolucci's finest film, but one of the key works in European art cinema. At once a savage indictment of follow-the-leader compliance and a rich pool of aesthetic rapture. Which to say, it's one of the most impossibly good-looking films ever made, wedded to a tale that's as knotty as it is ultimately misanthropic. The conformist of the title is the academic Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who decides to buy lock, stock and barrel into Mussolini's fascist Italy because....well, why exactly? He says it's borne out of a desperate desire to be normal, and certainly that explains his marriage to the beautiful but feckless housewife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), and maybe too, it's to somehow erase the sexual torment brought about by an incident in his youth. But even that doesn't make sense- because nothing he does is strictly normal at all.

Trintignant's performance is a masterpiece in wired agitation, Marcello seems to try to calculate his demeanour and behaviour according to each new situation, but at no stage does he seem comfortable with what he's doing. Bertolucci heightens this sensation by messing around with the structure- the story is told in timeline flea leaps that occasionsally flit back to earlier rememberances of things lost. This is a hollow man desperately looking for something to call his own, even if it means collaborating with people who, oblivious to him, hold him in contempt. Even the decision to betray his former professor is shown up as morally and philosophically fradulent- the tables are turned on him in the moment of truth, and even when he finally goes through with the act, he does it in the most cowardly way imaginable.

But Bertolucci is as much concerned with the politics of the flesh as he is the politics of ideology. I can't think of a picture that seems so engorged in its own rapture, every single shot work seems to have this incredible crispness about it- you can almost taste what's onscreen, even if Marcello seems to ignore this as he tries to become ever more anonymous and normal. Sure, he wilfully falls for the professor's bisexual minx (Dominique Sanda*), but her pull is so powering, and magnetic that eventually he's forced to either surrender to it fully or completely chicken-out- and of course he does the later. Besides, she's clearly more interested in his wife.

Which I suppose means we have to talk about that attempted seduction/dance sequence between the pair- it's an astonishing moment, at once utterly jovial (the way the two lead the rest of the revellers around in a circle), and so erotically charged it's hard to breathe. Considering what happened immediately before it, it's almost like foreplay-in-reverse. Certainly Bertolucci frames Sanda at all times in such a way that she's part enchantress, part possessed spirit. She's a force of nature, and the camera seems to just bathe in her beauty. This gazing, would of course, become a regular trait of Bertolucci's, to the point where his later work is more concerned with undressing his female leads than actually making a film.

What makes the Conformist so different- and superior- to anything he did subsequently is its sheer alertness to its surrounding world, the way light can shine on a room, the way decor looks, (and the way people look at it- witness the odd framing to the sequence in the train) and the way one's actions can betray one's statements, and vice-versa. You could argue that it, at times, descends into pop-Freudian psychology in its attempts to "explain" the lead character (not just the early flashbacks but also the sequences with the father- although they do carry a political sting, too, for sure). It's fair to say, too, that for a film that carries the portent of the darkest hours of 20th Century European history, it's ridiculously claustrophobic, only rarely alluding to the world outside its immediate characters.

And yet in hindsight, I don't think Bertolucci could've deliberated on his themes any differently, and by showing how self-involved Marcello is, not least in its bitterly ironic coda, it's damns him more savagely and pointedly than any sweeping historical epic ever could. (As was later proved by Bertolucci's own messy, overlong and overreaching folly 1900) As the film suggests, the world is so full of incidental pleasure, raptures, absurdities and menaces that to try to wilfully ignore these- to try to conform in your own self-interest- is not only foolish but morally and philosophically bankrupt. What's more, the consequences can be deplorable.

This is one of the great films.


What I will also say is that I don't think I know of a film that is at once so reserved and so sexually charged. Everything here just exudes almost heightened eroticism, just below the surface. And I hate to sound crass, but few mainstream film directors could undress women so enticingly (onscreen, that is) than Bertolucci. I'll reply to Goatboy's excellent review later. :)
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Re: FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby Livet » 17 Nov 2010, 02:15

The RightGraduate Profile wrote:(As was later proved by Bertolucci's own messy, overlong and overreaching folly 1900)


Aw, I loved 1900.

I thought the Conformist was a great film, and it was one I was glad to watch again. And very nice write ups by Goat Boy and RGP.

I was wondering if people think that conforming was an ideal aspired to by fascists in particular, or is it just something deeply ingrained in human nature. It seems to come out in many guises, especially involving crowd behavior. It's scary.
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Re: FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby Snarfyguy » 17 Nov 2010, 02:32

Agreed, props to Goat Boy and Profile for thoughtful and very well-written appreciations. I don't have much to add but to say this likely a top 10 for me and even though, like Davey, I've seen it relatively recently, it's a classic and there are always more nuances and subtleties to explore. I might rent it later this week when the Mrs. is working evenings.
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Re: FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby The Modernist » 19 Nov 2010, 09:45

I did manage to watch a stream of this on Veoh, but why haven't Paramount released a DVD of this in the UK? Absolutely shocking. The quality of the transfer wasn't great, watchable but it did diminish the impact of what must be the most beautifully photographed film ever and had it not been film club I wouldn't have persisted as it felt wrong somehow to put up with such inferior quality for this film.

I haven't got much to add as Goatboy has said it all in his brilliant opening post. Marcello's dysfunction does become a symbol of the dysfunction of fascism; a conceit which is achieved effortlessly despite the potential problems of such an approach. It is a film of fractured images, quite appropriately as Marcello's life is a vacuum with no grounded centre.

One thing that I did find curious on this rewatch was why did the Professor indulge Marcello and his wife in the first place, especially as he knew he was a fascist? I really wasn't sure but thought that perhaps as a brilliant former student he wanted to see the best in him and not give him up to fascism. I also couldn't fully understand why Anna was attracted to Marcello and his irritating, petit bourgeois wife. I wouldn't say these are flaws though, the elliptical construction of the film encourages us to ask such questions.

The Conformist really is the apex of a European auteurist tradition, and forty years on, the ambition of its vision is still awe inspiring.
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Re: FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby The Modernist » 19 Nov 2010, 16:32

Goat Boy wrote: Kudos also to the then 22 year old (!) Dominique Sanda who brilliantly balances the role of dutiful wife and bisexual flirt whose charm seduces not only Clerici but his rather dim witted wife as well and it’s only with her that Marcello briefly appears ‘normal’. It’s also clear her character is the only one who really senses the tragedy that is unfolding and as such she is the heart and soul of the movie which only makes her memorable reaction to Clerici as he sits passively and impotently in the car even more devastating.



I have to say on rewatching the film her performance, and the character itself, really stood out for me.
She brings something spirited and sensual to a film that might otherwise be a little too coldly perfectionist.
I had a look at her filmography afterwards as I curious to see how her career unfolded.
My curiosity was particularly piqued by this fim:
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0072692/
The one review isn't very complimentary, but what a fascinating cast -Nico, Dominique Sanda and Anita Pallenburg! That has to be worth the price of admission!

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Re: FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby Goat Boy » 19 Nov 2010, 19:06

Admiral G wrote:I did manage to watch a stream of this on Veoh, but why haven't Paramount released a DVD of this in the UK? Absolutely shocking. The quality of the transfer wasn't great, watchable but it did diminish the impact of what must be the most beautifully photographed film ever and had it not been film club I wouldn't have persisted as it felt wrong somehow to put up with such inferior quality for this film.



http://www.amazon.co.uk/Conformist-compatable~-Bernard-Bertolucci-film-Extended/dp/B0042L083C/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1289573512&sr=8-1

all regions and ignore what it says - it's Italian language with subtitles.
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Re: FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby The Write Profile » 20 Nov 2010, 11:43

Admiral G wrote:One thing that I did find curious on this rewatch was why did the Professor indulge Marcello and his wife in the first place, especially as he knew he was a fascist? I really wasn't sure but thought that perhaps as a brilliant former student he wanted to see the best in him and not give him up to fascism. I also couldn't fully understand why Anna was attracted to Marcello and his irritating, petit bourgeois wife. I wouldn't say these are flaws though, the elliptical construction of the film encourages us to ask such questions.


I think (and I tried to get this accross in my post) that the reason the Professor indulged Marcello is because he knew, deep down, that Marcello didn't have any real political beliefs at all, he was the very essence of an intellectual opportunist. Maybe there was hubris and a sense of wilful optimism on his own part, the fact he thought he could convince Marcello to reconsider (certainly their later scenes suggest that), but it's pretty apparent from the off that Marcello would do anything to get ahead. I think that's what makes the film such a nasty work, once you strip away the (incredibly sensuous, and at time ravishing) surface- its faith in people's ability to actually indulge themselves in independent thought is pretty dire. As Goatboy points out, the lead protagonist is ultimately impossible to admire or warm to.
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Re: FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby mentalist (slight return) » 22 Nov 2010, 22:47

I saw it. It all seems to have been said here. Although I think you're a bit too harsh on Giulia. Alberto Moravia was quite popular with directors of the era wasn't he? I would like to read his book and compare it to the movie.
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Re: FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby The Modernist » 24 Nov 2010, 02:18

The RightGraduate Profile wrote:
Admiral G wrote:One thing that I did find curious on this rewatch was why did the Professor indulge Marcello and his wife in the first place, especially as he knew he was a fascist? I really wasn't sure but thought that perhaps as a brilliant former student he wanted to see the best in him and not give him up to fascism. I also couldn't fully understand why Anna was attracted to Marcello and his irritating, petit bourgeois wife. I wouldn't say these are flaws though, the elliptical construction of the film encourages us to ask such questions.


I think (and I tried to get this accross in my post) that the reason the Professor indulged Marcello is because he knew, deep down, that Marcello didn't have any real political beliefs at all, he was the very essence of an intellectual opportunist.


All the less reason to bother with him surely?

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Re: FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby The Write Profile » 24 Nov 2010, 07:54

Admiral G wrote:
The RightGraduate Profile wrote:
Admiral G wrote:One thing that I did find curious on this rewatch was why did the Professor indulge Marcello and his wife in the first place, especially as he knew he was a fascist? I really wasn't sure but thought that perhaps as a brilliant former student he wanted to see the best in him and not give him up to fascism. I also couldn't fully understand why Anna was attracted to Marcello and his irritating, petit bourgeois wife. I wouldn't say these are flaws though, the elliptical construction of the film encourages us to ask such questions.


I think (and I tried to get this accross in my post) that the reason the Professor indulged Marcello is because he knew, deep down, that Marcello didn't have any real political beliefs at all, he was the very essence of an intellectual opportunist.


All the less reason to bother with him surely?


Perhaps, but maybe there was arrogance on the Professor's part, the belief that he could get through to him and change him, or at least make Marcello see the fallacy of his ways. But you're right, both Anna and the Professor are incredibly enigmatic characters, they're so vital to the film in the sense they signal Marcello's temptation and betrayal, and yet they seemed almost too good for the film.
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Re: FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 25 Nov 2010, 08:00

I'm not sure I have a fully formed thought on this subject, but I have a bit of a theory as to why the characters all seem so remote. It relates to something I wrote on the film club thread for Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris:

viewtopic.php?f=42&t=81129

In the past I'll confess I had difficulty with this film. I got stuck where I think a lot of people get stuck - wondering whether it was realistic that these two people would come together in the way the film shows them doing so. From the very beginning it makes little sense. Why is he even in the apartment? He doesn't need a place to live, and he doesn't follow her in. It simply seems like both of these people are drawn to this place. For this film to work at all, I think you have to proceed from that point. This film probably wasn't intended as a realistic scenario about these two individuals. It is about a place that some people find themselves in for any number of reasons.


I wonder if The Conformist is also meant as something other than a realistic scenario about its protagonists. Perhaps he viewed these people and their actions in more representational terms.I don't have a meaningful analysis on that level, but I bet there is something there.
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Re: FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby mentalist (slight return) » 26 Nov 2010, 05:17

Davey the Fat Boy wrote:I wonder if The Conformist is also meant as something other than a realistic scenario about its protagonists. Perhaps he viewed these people and their actions in more representational terms.I don't have a meaningful analysis on that level, but I bet there is something there.


You could be right. Sort of makes it easy to excuse badly drawn or unbelievable characters as 'representational', or enigmatic.
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Re: FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 26 Nov 2010, 11:30

I don't know that I'd call them "badly drawn". It is just that I noticed that I struggled with the characters in "Last Tango" in a similar fashion until I began to sense the presence of the metaphor they were operating within. But once I did, they made perfect sense to me.

"The Conformist" is a wonderful film because it operates so clearly within its own interior logic. We only start to question the characters when we try to reconcile them to our own world. My suspicion is that they can be reconciled, and that they likely do hold up - but perhaps not via a strictly linear analysis.
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Re: FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby algroth » 27 Nov 2010, 02:52

Aaargh! My download won't start. I'll keep trying, I'll probably end up getting t a couple of weeks late. Still, I'm really looking forward to revisiting this.

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Re: FILM CLUB - The Conformist

Postby Snarfyguy » 16 Dec 2010, 14:28

New Yorkers, The Conformist is doing a week run at the Film Forum starting tomorrow, Friday Dec. 17. By no means the biggest screens in town, but it's more or less the way it was intended to be watched. If you've only seen it on a TV set, I really recommend checking out a theatrical screening.

http://www.filmforum.org/films/conformist.html
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