Outside history man is nothing.
In 1970 Bernardo Bertolucci filmed Alberto Moravia’s novel The Conformist and in the process provoked a formal rupture with his friend and mentor Jean-Luc Godard. Bertolucci had simultaneously preempted and stoked a hostile response by giving Godard’s real life Parisian address and telephone number to the principal victim of the film, Professor Quadri. He later explained this gesture, with a little self-irony:
The Conformist is a story about me and Godard. When I gave the professor Godard’s phone number and address, I did it for a joke, but afterwards I said to myself, “Well, maybe all that has some significance…I’m Marcello and I make Fascist movies and I want to kill Godard who’s a revolutionary, who makes revolutionary movies and who was my teacher. (1)
Through this retrospectively silly spat, fueled by Godard’s commitment to Maoist praxis and Bertolucci’s indulgent surrender to psychoanalytic theory and Paramount budgets, the intellectual failure of the film can be partly understood. The central character of Fascist civil servant Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) — tasked with facilitating a political assassination while on honeymoon with his new wife in Paris — is too narrow and neurotic to resonate more widely than the local repercussions of his internal drama. As a psychological portrait of isolation, commitment and betrayal Moravia’s novel has limitations, but with the addition of Bertolucci’s own psychological speculations deliberate ambiguity can slip into incoherence. There is too much theory in this film — an awkward overlay of Freud and Reich — but the theory is partial and self-referential. It does not adequately explain Italian Fascism or Marcello Clerici, even if it does reveal aspects of Bertolucci’s own self-image, personal preoccupations and feuds. It manages to condemn Italian Fascism, and even Italy in the Fascist era, but does this using crude interpretative tools.
In 1973, after Godard conspicuously walked out of an early public screening of Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci passed judgement: “When Godard theorises he becomes very simplistic. But when he doesn’t do that he’s a great poet.” (2) As Pauline Kael noted in her 1971 New Yorker review, this dynamic runs through The Conformist itself:
I think we may all be a little weary — and properly suspicious — of psychosexual explanations of political behaviour; we can make up for ourselves these textbook cases of how it is that frightened, repressed individuals become Fascists. In an imaginative work, one might hope for greater illumination — for a Fascist seen from inside, not just a left view of his insides. Yet though the ideas aren’t convincing, the director makes the story itself seem organic in the baroque environment he has created, and the colour is so soft and deep and toned down, and the texture so lived in, that the work is, by its nature, ambiguous — not in the tedious sense of confusing us but in the good sense of touching the imagination. (3)
Bertolucci puts the sexual psychology of his characters at the forefront, making explicit or including what Moravia hints at or omits. In the film’s clumsy final scene in the catacombs of the Colosseum — where Marcello encounters and confronts his early abuser, Lino the chauffeur, as Mussolini’s dictatorship falls apart — Bertolucci practically certifies repressed homosexuality as the central motivation for this adoption of fascism. It is not a very useful or artistically satisfying conclusion although it may have been ideologically or theoretically convenient for Bertolucci himself. For the best part of the film, and in Moravia’s novel, Marcello’s sexuality is latent and part of a wider and more complex and even contradictory set of motivating factors. This includes a general motif of sexual ambiguity which pervades the story itself and, in Marcello’s case, resists resolution or categorisation. In the same way, his identification with fascism is ultimately opaque: a pointless riddle. His sudden lust for Professor Quadri’s wife is as vivid and irreducible as his relationship with the memory of Lino from which he seemingly does everything to escape. In the film, Anna Quadri’s sexual charisma is luxurious and fluid (due in large part to Dominique Sanda’s performance), whereas Moravia portrays a flinty, single-minded and predatory lesbian named Lina (in sexual counterpoint to Lino). In the novel, Marcello’s vacuous and sensual petit bourgeois wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) finds Lina’s sexual overtures disgusting and frankly rebuffs her; in the film, her reaction to Anna is more indulgent and ambivalent and, of course, visually arresting.
Moravia and Bertolucci are both able to conjure a liminal world of fluid sexuality that overwhelms Marcello. He is confused, rootless, without fixed identity, and tries to find this in adopting what he perceives to be the most attainable and conventional role as middle class Fascist party member and husband. In doing this he also rejects his family identity: his chaotic, wealthy upbringing; his insane, incarcerated father; his promiscuous, morphine-addicted mother. As a young boy, he attempts to find refuge in the rituals of school:
The novelty of his schoolfellows, of the teachers, the classrooms, the timetables – a novelty in which an idea of order and discipline and shared occupations was always discernible, under a variety of aspects – was extremely pleasing to him after the disorder, the lack of rules, the loneliness of his own home. (4)
This fails, as he cannot find the order and belonging that he craves: bullied by other pupils because of his effeminate appearance, he falls into the clutches of the predatory Lino. Fascism provides a more fertile opportunity to cut off and condemn the past, because of its definitive postulation of values and its ideological flexibility. As George L. Mosse explains: “The key to fascism is not only the activism and the longing for a community of affinity but also the taming of these ideals into a system of hierarchy, discipline, and order” (5). The immediate utility of fascism for Marcello is clear: as a party and state ideology it rejects the parliamentary, liberal Italy of Giovanni Giolitti that the Fascists associated with decadence and corruption, and which Marcello also associates with his parents. His family’s decadence and “abnormality” is repudiated and condemned by Marcello through the surrender of his individuality to mass identity and social hierarchy within a fascist order. He does not understand that the identity he adopts is extreme in its own way and that he must commit murder to attain it, a major component of the original tragedy he is trying to escape from and the story’s principal dramatic irony. Finally, in this epic of repression, evasion and cancellation Marcello develops a sterile interior life, emotionally and sexually. His act of self-creation through fascism is a purely negative act that inescapably leads to aridity and dysfunction.
Bertolucci fatally reduces this dynamic in the process of applying his own Reichian gloss to the narrative. In The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Wilhelm Reich defined fascism as “the organised political expression of the structure of the average man’s character”:
Since fascism, whenever and wherever it makes its appearance, is a movement borne by masses of people, it betrays all the characteristics and contradictions present in the character structure of the mass individual…Fascist mentality is the mentality of the “little man,” who is enslaved and craves authority and is at the same time rebellious. (6)
Bertolucci explicitly adopted this interpretation in the 1973 interview:
Yes, I think the average man is fascistic…the average man is fascist. All my characters are predestined. They’re doomed, but it’s not destiny that’s decided to doom them, it’s their unconscious. (7)
The limitation here, which undermines his film in ways that do not harm Moravia’s novel, is in locating the source of fascism in repressed sexuality and the unconscious desire for authority. In his 1969 survey Interpretations of Fascism, Renzo de Felice identified the limitations of Social Science accounts of fascism exemplified by Reich:
[i]t is difficult to accept their tendency (in certain instances, pretension) to view their contributions as full-blown interpretations of fascism. As historical reconstructions and evaluations these analyses and explanations (including those least inspired by a historical approach) are individually unsatisfactory because they are narrow and incomplete. They are distortions, reverting to schematic and unilateral interpretations based on the exaggeration of a single aspect of the phenomenon and the denial (or, in better examples, underestimation) of other aspects. (8)
In Bertolucci’s film the character can serve the theory, but the theory does not adequately explain the character or the regime. It has a long way to go to fully account for fascism or to evaluate its historical and social significance. As De Felice long contested and Christopher Duggan subsequently confirmed through extensive work in the Italian archives (9), the Fascist Regime enjoyed broad popular support across all sectors of Italian society until quite late into the 1930s. Even when faith in fascism disintegrated, loyalty to the dictator proved more resilient. But the reasons for this were multifaceted: psychological, mythic, economic, patriotic, aesthetic, erotic, cynical, idealistic, revolutionary and conformist. In this context, Bertolucci’s film fails as a commentary on fascism but stands as a patchy psychological case study, albeit propelled by some of the most ravishing visual compositions in the history of cinema (10).
This is not all it does, however. Through their dual portraits of Marcello both Moravia and Bertolucci can evoke aspects of fascism disregarded as superficial or irrelevant by many of its historians, with important exceptions such as George L. Mosse, Renzo de Felice, Emilio Gentile and Roger Griffin. The narrative of The Conformist does not simply present fascism in Italy as a conservative and reactionary movement but also, and more effectively, hints at its revolutionary and Modernist aspects: the desire to create New Italians and the New Man, to “challenge time” and establish a political religion, ideas articulated by philosophers and artists such as Giovanni Gentile and the Futurists. Marcello’s drive to conform through immersion in the Fascist state apparatus is driven by his sense of personal abnormality and his abhorrence of all its manifestations: his sadistic impulses; his latent homosexuality or sexual ambiguity; his father’s insanity; his mother’s decadence; his own thwarted (or diverted) intellectualism. What he finds in fascism is not just an opportunity to conform, but to start from scratch: to erase his past, to oppose all its associations, and to recreate his own character. If Marcello’s identification with fascism is essentially negative, it is still an act of self-creation. In this case the motivations are opaque when they are not cynical or he is not simply conflicted and ready to betray everything he is trying to commit to. Nevertheless, fascism provides the existential tools and opportunity to eliminate his past and construct a new identity. In this aspect of his portrayal, Moravia and Bertolucci are both able to locate revolutionary potential and contradictions in fascism often minimised or erased in post-war interpretations.
Before Marcello marries Guilia, she insists, for the sake of form, that he attends confession, which in turn becomes a minor inquisition. With self-conscious perversity, a kind of pleasurable malice, Marcello presents his record: the ambiguous sexual encounter with Lino; his “murder” of Lino; his subsequent “normal” premarital sex life, mostly using prostitutes (“you call that normal?” replies the priest). It is a key scene because Marcello finds clarity in this ritual and is as open and truthful as he can be. “I am going to build a life that is normal,” he explains, “I intend to construct my normality. But it won’t be easy.” This entails marriage to Giulia, into a class, to become a type, which he designates with the arrogance and coldness of the pseudo-aristocratic outsider that he really is. With a wolfish grin which is partly a grimace, teeth set like razors along the edge of his bottom lip, he states: “I am marrying a petit bourgeois. Mediocre. A mound of petty ideas, full of petty ambitions. She’s all bed and kitchen.” The priest, appalled by his disdain, exclaims: “You have no right to use such expressions!” He councils Marcello to build this life within the moral and social limits defined by Catholicism: “Stay within religion.” Marcello responds with force: “Outside religion!” In the novel Moravio adds:
He was quite aware that, amongst the many possible standards of behaviour, he had not chosen the Christian standard which forbids man to kill, but another entirely different one, political and of recent introduction, which had no objection to bloodshed. (11)
Marcello has no use for the hypocrisy of a Church that is more concerned with one potential homosexual encounter than his unambiguous confession of murder. The act of confession, of playing his role in the rite, clashes with his other “normal” construction: the loyal Fascist. It is a compromise, full of dangerous ironies and fissures, which reflects real conflicts and accommodations between the Vatican and the Fascist regime. Fascism, in its ideological forms, aspired to create a political religion, to establish new values for a New Italy. The Vatican considered this to be a legitimate threat to its status and authority. One of the defining commands of Italian Fascism was faith in the cause and it was this very usurpation of religious concepts to engineer mass, totalitarian engagement with the regime that created conflict with the Catholic Church. Giovanni Gentile, the philosopher, Fascist Minister of Education and co-writer with Mussolini of the The Doctrine of Fascism, tried to define and thereby create a totalitarian state that would embody a new system of ethics and morality, transcending both the liberal era of Giolitti and the spiritual malaise of modern society. As Roger Griffin writes, this amounted to “a regenerative myth…[a] shift from cultural pessimism to palingenetic hope” (12) that fed into the tropes and myths invented and appropriated by the Fascists: the New Italy, the New Man, “making Italians”, “completing the Risorgimento” (13). The historian Emilio Gentile describes this as a “sacralization of politics and the institutionalisation of the cult of the fasces…the construction of a lay religion for the nation” (14). Giovanni Gentile and the radical ideologues of the Fascist movement aimed at nothing less than a “total spiritual revolution” that profoundly challenged the spiritual dominance of the Catholic Church (15).
The values of this new faith, like Marcello’s own self-construction, were built by defining identity against others, values postulated in opposition to subversion, perversion, weakness, race. The parts of Marcello’s personality that he wants to escape and erase (sexual ambiguity, “decadence”, intellectualism, his physical and moral cowardice) are in precise opposition to the fascist ideal of the New Man and the New Italy. As Special Agent Manganiello spits in disgust after Marcello fails to kill Anna: “Cowards, homosexuals, Jews, they’re all the same thing. If it was up to me, I’d stand them all up against the wall. Better yet, eliminate them before they’re born.” Marcello’s intellectualism is an important focal point of this conflict: like the regime he serves, he disdains the intellectual class as representative of Giolittian liberalism, compromise, decadence, and the anti-fascist values he identifies and rejects in himself. He is willing to betray his former professor, and his own past as the star philosophy student, in order to construct his new identity within the framework of the new ethical state, although this is always fragile. Marcello can even accuse the professor, and his intellectual class, of betrayal, of fleeing the scene of conflict: “you left,” he tells Quadri, “and I became a Fascist.” Quadri is never fully convinced by Marcello’s projected identity: “excuse me Clerici,” he replies, “a confirmed Fascist doesn’t speak like that.” (Later he says to Marcello, probing: “You had me convinced you were the typical New Italian.” “No such type exists yet,” Marcello replies, “but we’re creating him.”) Everything outside of this identity, every aspect of this past that he views with fear and disgust, becomes a compromise, condemns him, and is a crime (real, imaginary and abstract crimes all conflate in this disordered mind): “It was a desire for normality; a wish to conform to a recognised, general rule; a longing to be like everybody else, inasmuch as to be different meant to be guilty” (16).
Marcello tries to be a fanatical Fascist, ready to commit murder for the regime. But his attempt to construct a new identity, to erase his past, is always partly compromised: Moravia makes it clear that if Lina reciprocated his advances, Marcello would immediately betray his new wife, Fascism, the regime, and his country, simply in order to have her. Ultimately, however, he strikes an essentially cynical bargain for reasons he can articulate but not fully understand. It is the Protean ideological ferment of Italian Fascism that gives him the tools to dismantle his past, his family ties, and his formative identity in order to assemble a new “deliberate, artificial” (17) construct. The tools available include Giovanni Gentile’s philosophy of Actualism which understands history as a “dynamic, living, futural reality that is to be proactively made” and “reality as the product of continuous autoctisi or ‘self-creation’” (18). The attempt by Marcello, the former philosophy student, to “remake” himself and to “make history” through one dynamic act, an intervention in real time, is pure Gentile, pure Actualism. (“Action,” as he understands it, is “a confirmation of one’s own normality that must be provided both for oneself and for others” (19).) Like the regime he serves, he can reject the liberal intellectual class while retaining the capacity to embrace and exploit philosophical ideas that serve his interests (20).
Finally, this involves a challenge to time itself: to overthrow the past, to eradicate or manipulate memory, a project mirrored by Fascism itself which sought to redefine Italy’s relationship to its own past and to “challenge time” (in the words of Mussolini). This was dismissed as an example of the Fascists’ inflated, empty rhetoric, but Griffin understood it to be central to the movement’s palingenetic scope and ambition:
In this context, the regime’s introduction of a new calendar to run alongside the Gregorian one which established 1922, the year of the March on Rome, as Year I of the Fascist Era, is a gesture pregnant with symbolic significance…The mathematical manipulations of the measurement of time under Mussolini point to a profoundly mythic will to create a new type of state capable of realizing a new order in which chronos will be suspended and historical time will literally be made anew. (21)
Marcello’s desire to erase his past parallels the regime’s attempt to redefine Italy through the new ethical Fascist state, resurrecting Rome through an erasure of the liberal era. For Marcello time is a trap: he attaches all his psychological disorder to the tyranny of memory and history. Through fascism, he thinks, he can transcend this fate. However Peter Bondanella notes that Bertolucci’s manipulation of time in the film has another significance for the character of Marcello:
The plot of the film can be assembled only after a complete viewing of it, since the many flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks disrupt any linear sense of time…[w]ith this ingenious confusion of levels of time, Bertolucci brilliantly manages to render the sense of entrapment in the past felt by Marcello. (22)
The attempt to “challenge time” inevitably fails, both for Marcello and Mussolini. The Fascist Era ends with a bust of the dictator being dragged through the streets of Rome from the back of a motorbike. Marcello, cynically and desperately, finds space in the spiritual revolution that fascism offers to reset his identity, integrate with the Italian masses, and find freedom from his past. The ideology, then, is an opportunity for illusion and self-delusion: Fascism, as such, is a cynical sham. In both novel and movie, Marcello is constantly caught between his recognition of this pretence and the attempt to submit to it. In this way, The Conformist manages to capture something of the Protean, dynamic, revolutionary nature of the Fascist movement, even through a negative and ironic treatment. Politics, for Marcello, has become a way to order identity and to re-order his life: through the ideological apparatus of Fascism he attempts to construct an attitude and an approach to living. It is the totalitarian scope of the project that offers this potential, but also destroys it. This is the most successful interpretation of fascism that The Conformist actually offers.
- Bernardo Bertolucci quoted in Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema – From Neorealism to the Present (Continuum, 2001), p.304
- Jonathan Cott, ‘A Conversation with Bernardo Bertolucci’, Rolling Stone, June 21st, 1973
- Pauline Kael, ‘The Poetry of Images’, The New Yorker, March 27th, 1971
- Alberto Moravia, The Conformist (Penguin, 1974, trans. Angus Davidson), p.30
- George L. Mosse, The Culture of Western Europe – the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries 3rd Ed. (Westview Press, 1988), p.348
- Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), p.xiii
- Cott, ‘A Conversation…’
- Renzo de Felice, Interpretations of Fascism (Harvard University Press, 1977, trans. Brenda Huff Everett), p.77
- See Christopher Duggan, Fascist Voices – An Intimate History of Mussolini’s Italy (Vintage, 2013)
- As much as anybody else, The Conformist is the triumph of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.
- Moravia, p.105
- Roger Griffin, Modernism and Fascism – The Sense of a Beginning Under Mussolini and Hitler (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p.197
- Griffin, p.198
- Quoted in Griffin, p.221
- Fascist anti-clericalism was tempered when the movement became a regime and Mussolini was required to compromise with the Vatican; similarly, the Church made its own accommodations with a regime that shared many other social and political interests. On this conflict and compromise see, for example, Duggan, pp.80-3.
- Moravia, p.29
- Griffin, p.194
- Moravia, p. 71
- Italian Fascism was not necessarily anti-intellectual, in the sense that it utilised intellectuals sympathetic to its ideas and interests. See, for example, the ‘Manifesto of fascist intellectuals’ published in Il Popolo d’Italia during April 1925. Duggan (p.115): “The manifesto, which had been drawn up largely by [Giovanni Gentile] sought to establish the main coordinates of fascist ideology and justify the assaults that were being made on ‘freedom’ as it was conventionally understood.”
- Griffin, pp.223
- Bondanella, pp. 301-3