The Fascist Revolution in ‘The Conformist’

Outside history man is nothing.
Benito Mussolini

I

In 1970 Bernardo Bertolucci filmed Alberto Moravia’s novel The Conformist and in the process sparked a row 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 some 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 revolutionary praxis and Bertolucci’s surrender to psychoanalytic theory and Paramount budgets, the intellectual chaos of the film can be partly understood. The central character of Fascist civil servant Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) — tasked with the assassination of Quadri, his former teacher, while on honeymoon with his new wife in Paris — is too narrow 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 psychoanalytical 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. The film condemns Italian Fascism, and even Italy in the Fascist era, using crude interpretative tools in pursuit of private intrigues. Bertolucci does not try to ‘explain’ fascism, but his portrait of Clerici does approach an interpretation of fascism that is basically trivial, and if you cannot blame the director for this then you can only blame the writers and theorists who influenced him. 

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 exposes the sexual psychology of his characters, making explicit what Moravia hints at or omits. In the film’s clumsy final scene under the arches 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 belongs to a general theme of sexual ambiguity which pervades the story itself and, in Marcello’s case, resists simple resolution. In the novel, his sudden lust for Professor Quadri’s wife is as vivid and irreducible as the memory of Lino from which he seemingly does everything to escape, but for Bertolucci it is merely repression. In the film, Anna Quadri’s sexual charisma is more luxurious and fluid (due in large part to Dominique Sanda’s performance) than Moravia’s flinty, single-minded, predatory lesbian Lina (named 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, but in the film, her reaction to Anna is more indulgent and ambivalent and, of course, visually arresting. In both cases the sexual politics are potentially more interesting than the actual politics that they come to serve.

In this world of ambiguity and licence Marcello is confused, rootless, lacking a secure identity and therefore tries to find this by adopting what he perceives to be the most attainable and conventional role available: 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. 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 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 fortify 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 evasion and cancellation Marcello develops a sterile interior life, emotionally and sexually. His act of self-creation through fascism is purely negative and 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, Reich described 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. (5)

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. (6)

The limitation here, which undermines his film in ways that do not harm Moravia’s novel, is in uniquely locating the psychological source of fascism in repressed sexuality and an unconscious desire for authority. In his 1969 survey Interpretations of Fascism, Renzo de Felice identified the limitations of ‘social science’ interpretations of fascism exemplified by Reich and, to some extent, Bertolucci’s film:

[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. (7)

For Bertolucci the character can serve the theory, but the theory does not adequately explain the character or the regime. To link fascism to psychological disturbance or aberration was convenient both artistically and politically in a post-war Italy seeking to repress the memory and reality of the fascist years in which so many were implicated. Even when faith in fascism disintegrated, loyalty to the dictator proved more resilient and the reasons for this were multifaceted: psychological, mythic, economic, patriotic, aesthetic, erotic, cynical, idealistic, revolutionary and conformist. The popularity of Mussolini and the consensus for Fascist rule was too wide-spread to be reduced to insular patterns of sexual repression.  In this context, then, Bertolucci’s film fails as a commentary on fascism but can still stand as an ambiguous psychological case study, albeit one propelled by some of the most ravishing visual compositions in the history of cinema (8).

II

This is not all it does, however. Through their dual portraits of Marcello both Moravia and Bertolucci can evoke aspects of fascism often disregarded as superficial or irrelevant by  postwar 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 drive to create New Italians, to “challenge time” and establish a political religion, ideas articulated by philosophers and artists such as Giovanni Gentile and the Futurists. Marcello’s attempt to conform through immersion in the Fascist state apparatus is driven by his sense of personal abnormality and abhorrence of all its manifestations. What he finds in fascism is not just an opportunity to conform, but to start again: to erase the past and 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). This is a key scene in Bertolluci’s film as 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. (9)

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 Italian Fascist. It is a compromise full of dangerous ironies and fissures that 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 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 construct 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” (10) that fed into the tropes and myths invented and appropriated by the Fascists: the New Italy, the New Man, “making Italians”, “completing the Risorgimento” (11). 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” (12). 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. 

The parts of Marcello’s personality that he wants to escape and erase (sexual ambiguity, “decadence”, intellectualism, his physical and moral cowardice) are in 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 rejects the intellectual class that represents Giolittian liberalism and the anti-fascist values he identifies and rejects in himself. He is willing to betray his former professor 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 the liberal intellectual exiles of betrayal: “you left,” he tells Quadri, “and I became a Fascist.” Quadri is never fully convinced by Marcello’s adopted 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 conflate inside 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” (13).

Marcello tries to become a Fascist by committing murder for the regime. But his attempt to construct a new identity and erase his past is always 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” (14) construct. The tools available include Giovanni Gentile’s philosophy of Actualism which conceptualised history as a “dynamic, living, futural reality that is to be proactively made” and “reality as the product of continuous autoctisi or ‘self-creation’” (15). 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” (16).) 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.

Finally, this involves a challenge to time itself: to overthrow the past, to eradicate or manipulate memory, a project mirrored by Italian Fascism itself which sought to redefine Italy’s relationship to its own past and to “challenge time” (in the words of Mussolini). This was later dismissed as an example of the Fascists’ inflated, empty rhetoric, but Griffin considers 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. (17)

Marcello’s desire to erase his past parallels the regime’s attempt to redefine Italy through the new ethical Fascist state, resurrecting the legacy of Imperial Rome and thereby erasing the liberal era. For Marcello time is a trap: he attaches 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 own manipulation of time 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. (18)

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, but also 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 Italian 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. 

  1. Bernardo Bertolucci quoted in Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema – From Neorealism to the Present (Continuum, 2001), p.304
  2. Jonathan Cott, ‘A Conversation with Bernardo Bertolucci’, Rolling Stone, June 21st, 1973
  3. Pauline Kael, ‘The Poetry of Images’, The New Yorker, March 27th, 1971
  4. Alberto Moravia, The Conformist (Penguin, 1974, trans. Angus Davidson), p.30
  5. Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), p.xiii
  6. Cott, ‘A Conversation…’
  7. Renzo de Felice, Interpretations of Fascism (Harvard University Press, 1977, trans. Brenda Huff Everett), p.77 
  8. As much as Bertolucci The Conformist is the triumph of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and editor Franco Arcalli. 
  9. Moravia, p.105
  10. Roger Griffin, Modernism and Fascism – The Sense of a Beginning Under Mussolini and Hitler (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p.197
  11. Griffin, p.198
  12. Quoted in Griffin, p.221
  13. Moravia, p.29
  14. ibid. 
  15. Griffin, p.194
  16. Moravia, p. 71
  17. Griffin, pp.223
  18. Bondanella, pp. 301-3
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