The first time I saw The Conformist, in a film history class, I was bowled over by its sumptuous cinematic style, but also utterly terrified by its protagonist.
There’s a popular saying among writers that villains are the heroes of their own stories. Marcello Clerici, the protagonist of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 film The Conformist, is no hero, even from a villain’s perspective. He’s a different class of villain: one who might never have become one in a different place and time.
The plot of the film is fairly simple: Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a fascist and member of Mussolini’s secret police. He travels to Paris for a honeymoon with his new bride Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli). The trip is actually a cover for his first important mission: a plot to assassinate Clerici’s former professor, Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), an outspoken opponent of fascism. Clerici falls in love with Anna (Dominique Sanda), Quadri’s young wife. She allows him to seduce her, perhaps in hopes that will save her husband. The story shifts time frames during Clerici’s journey with his henchman Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) to help murder Quadri, as it recounts his childhood, marriage and meeting in Paris with the Quadris.
Looking at just the bare bones of the plot, it comes across as a fairly mundane political thriller, but the film is anything but that. In fact, it was (and, I would argue, remains) one of the most influential films of the 1970s.
Based on the novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia, the film starts with Clerici awaiting instructions for his mission while in his hotel room next to his sleeping–and nude–wife. It’s an opening that echoes many a film noir, but Clerici is not a noir protagonist, either. Noirs usually feature characters caught up by fate and uncontrolled desires. Clerici is a character who calculates every move very carefully. Even in the throes of a supposed mad love, he still manages to control it.
In flashbacks, a traumatic event in Clerici’s childhood is recounted, where he is almost seduced by the family chauffer. The chauffer shows him a pistol, which the young Marcello fires several times, hitting the chauffer (named Lino). He believes he has killed the man.
This is recounted during confession to a priest, which Clerici agrees to only so he can marry Giulia in a Catholic ceremony. The priest seems more horrified by the homosexual encounter than the confession to possible murder. He is also incensed by Clerici’s attitude towards Giulia, who he values only for her mediocrity, and her interest in nothing other than “the bedroom and kitchen.”
This incident in his childhood is as far as the story goes to “explain” why Clerici is the way he is, but some critics claim it’s almost unnecessary . (I tend to agree with that, though Bertolucci makes good use of it for his ironic ending to the film, which is different from the novel.)
Clerici’s wife makes her own confession on the train while journeying to Paris–she had been seduced at a very young age by an older friend of her family and had an affair with him for six years. Not only is Clerici not angry or disappointed in the confession, he consummates the marriage by having Giulia tell him exactly what happened the first time she had sex with her lover and makes love to her the same way. Even as a husband he can’t be himself, and takes on the persona of his wife’s erstwhile lover.
In Paris, he talks his way into an invitation from his targets, the Quadris. Anna is immediately suspicious of him and his motives, but is not very resistant to his advances. She befriends Giulia and offers to take her shopping. Clerici observes Anna trying to seduce Giulia.
Later during dinner Anna berates Clerici for his views, but plays footsie with him under the table. At a dance hall, Anna and Giulia dance a tango together, then lead nearly everyone in the place in a dance outside. As they leave the dance hall, Quadri sets up a test to see if Clerici is truly a bad person out to harm him, and concludes deep down he is not.
Anna is the perfect foil for Clerici: she is also sexually ambiguous but totally comfortable in her own skin. She is not afraid to speak the truth to him. His infatuation with her may be because he sees someone who is like him but not afraid to be different from others.
There’s also a dream-like quality to the relationship, as he encounters two women before meeting her that look like her.
Quadri is almost naïve in his belief that he can persuade his former student away from fascism, never understanding that he can’t get him not to believe something he never believed in the first place.
Through Giulia, Clerici finds out when Quadri will be driving through an isolated part of the countryside. Believing Anna will stay behind in Paris, he passes on the information to Manganiello. Trapping Quadri by stopping a car across the road, a group of assassins emerge from the woods and fall on him, stabbing him to death.
An odd method for assassination–obviously meant to echo the death of Julius Caesar (a little too obviously, my only issue with the movie). Clerici is Brutus to Quadri’s Caesar, though unlike Brutus he doesn’t betray him for a political belief or revenge or jealousy. It’s simply a means to an end: a successful mission to help him ascend in his chosen profession.
Anna, it turns out, is also in the car. She runs to the car with Clerici in it, screaming and banging on the windshield. He ignores her. The assassins dispatch her as well.
Clerici’s reason for everything he does–from marrying Giulia to becoming a member of a fascist regime–is due to his desire for a “normal” life.
Not idealism, or hatred, or greed, or psychosis, or a twisted desire for revenge or power or a denied love–the usual laundry list of reasons why villains do what they do.
He wants to be normal, to fade into the background. He just happens to find himself against a background defined by the rise of fascism in Europe during the mid-20th century.
This is what has always terrified me about this character. The idea that someone would choose evil as a path to normalcy scares me more than any monster movie from my childhood.
Political theorist Hannah Arendt first coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” She wrote about the trial of Adolf Eichmann and noted that he was not a fanatic, nor could he be classified as a sociopath or psychopath. He was a joiner, a not very bright person, who was more motivated by professional ambition than ideology. Although the novel The Conformist predates Arendt’s book about Eichmann, Moravia had a similar take on some of those who became fascists.
The term “banality of evil” is sometimes applied to nihilist characters such as those from the French New Wave films. Clerici is not a nihilist. He doesn’t care about politics, but he does care about fitting in–to the point where he will betray and kill in an effort to “blend in” with the background.
As I mentioned before, the movie is a stylistic triumph, from its use of color, light, composition, and architecture. Francis Ford Coppola in particular was greatly influence by it when he made his Godfather movies a few years later. He cast Gastone Moschin (Manganiello) as Fanucci, the local mob boss dispatched by young Vito Corleone in the flashback parts of The Godfather Part II.
It’s not unusual for modern anti-heroes to contain echoes of the Clerici character. Many are tempted into evil, or at least into living an unauthentic life, by a desire to keep up a façade of normality.
The Conformist shows how an obsessive pursuit of normality can destroy not just individuals, but threaten a whole society. And yet, in spite of its horror, it is also one of the most beautiful films ever made. The contradiction makes it one of my favorite films, and Clerici one of the most memorable villains I have ever encountered in film.