The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)

02May11

Jean-Louis Trintignant (Marcello Clerici), Stefania Sandrelli (Giulia). Screenplay by Bernardo Bertolucci. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Rating: 15. Running time: 107 minutes.

Studying Plato recently as part of my philosophy degree, I was stunned to find a crucial commentator on the Republic claiming the best way to understand the allegory of the Cave is to watch Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist. To help you try and fathom just how odd that is, note that this is from an academic who works in a field of study that is nowadays stupidly stale in its adherence to analytic thought and logic, shockingly suspicious of the value of art and literature as a means to understanding and appreciating philosophical propositions and problems. Camus and Sartre, of course, begged to differ, as did Godard who boldly claimed that that if Descartes was alive in the 21st century, Meditations would have been put onto celluloid rather than penned onto paper. It’s fair to say, however, that the film-as-philosophy school of thought is at best a fringe theory, undoubtedly a niche. Alas, I saw The Conformist this weekend as part of the British Film Institute’s reflection on Bertolucci’s career, and indeed it is one hell of an embodiment of Plato’s Cave. It is also, however, about much more than mere conformity and false conscious living. Bertolucci is a man with an interest in images as well as ideas.

Our character, then, or perhaps our caveman, is an Italian called Clerici, but if we used the term ‘human’ in a stricter and better sense than we do, we would probably be reluctant to apply it to him. Humans are supposed to think, reflect on what they deem best and pursue their notion of a good life accordingly. If instead you allow the principles of others to automatically overrule you, to be the governors of your actions, then you’re not a human. You alienate yourself from your nature as a responsible being. You sacrifice your autonomy and to all intents and purposes become a vacuous, incomprehensible machine. Indeed, you become a conformist.

This is Clerici’s illness. He becomes an instrument of others, a slave. He signs up to the Fascist secret police not because he has thought out and nodded assent to their inhuman ideology, but because… well, there is no satisfying because. How could we understand why someone would opt to value the state as a super-entity of normative importance over and above human life? His endorsement is presented as a kind of enigma, and for Italians, it is presumably the most obvious manifestation of the Platonic notion of a dogmatic caveman, in light of their nation’s history and experience. So Clerici becomes an assassin, and he also becomes a husband not because he loves a woman and desires a family – on the contrary, he makes his contempt for her and his past love of sexual liberty clear – but seemingly because convention to him is an unconquerable magnet, repelling his freedom of the will.

The film would be more painful were it not so beautiful. Bertolucci’s undoubtedly not fond of invisible cinematography; rarely are we allowed to forget we’re watching a film, his stylistic touches so strong as to infect almost every shot. In a strange way a lot of the tragedy feels reminiscent of Le Mépris, The Conformist having a similar blend of aching story and stunning scenery to ensure the starkest of paradoxes. Without it, Bertolucci would have come across as more like Kubrick: interested in filming dehumanised characters for the sake of some pure, sadistic end. Watching Clerici is like watching a man try to bash his way out of a cage with his fists when the key to the gate is on the floor by his feet. He obviously despises his own existence. A crucial and unprecedented moment comes when his wife asks if they can climb the Eiffel Tower when on Honeymoon in Paris. He hails a taxi, shoves her in alone and sends it off before she can get out. Yet the chances of him ending the marriage once and for all remain a firm, perplexing zero.

When it comes to killing he may not commit any murders himself, but he watches, and the scene is harrowing. The target is his old rebel professor who’s now married to a young woman Clerici himself shows a liking to in the course of infiltrating their household. Yet when the time arrives for her husband to be taken out, and she happens to unfortunately be there too, she pleads with him for help, bashing at his car window. But he sits sternly, rigidly, not once blinking as his coworkers silence her petrified screaming by machine gunning her to death.

This is The Conformist‘s most harrowing moment, in a film I’ve made sound much easier to watch than it is. This impression of Clerici, and the disgust surrounding his actions, brews mainly with time and reflection. As you watch this epic for at least the first time (it feels like an epic because of its grandiosity; it’s in fact under 2 hours), it’s extremely hard to take its plot detail and visuals in, no doubt in large part because of the necessary double-task of watching whilst reading subtitles. It is, however, undoubtedly a work to be rewatched and refelt. Clerici is an image of everything that we should strive to avoid becoming. Hopefully Plato was wrong when he said that his cavemen were ‘like us.’

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