The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

Dominique Sanda gets a leg up in 'The Conformist'
Paramount Pictures

At the end of Bernardo Bertolucci's 1970 movie The Conformist, the titular protagonist goes out into an Italian night in 1943 "to see how a dictatorship falls." The man, Marcello Clerici (played like a clenched muscle by Jean-Louis Trintignant), finds that Fascism falls the same way it reigns: with the assistance of people like himself, eager to appear "normal." The joke is that this Clerici has never appeared normal. From the film's beginnings, and Clerici's own anglings to join Mussolini's secret police, he has shown himself as both too intelligent and too intense: He can feel how he doesn't fit, and in trying to compensate he performs extraordinary acts.

But are those acts--of manipulation, of betrayal--extraordinary within a fascist state? Bertolucci keeps his focus on one man, and so withholds a definition of "normality," yet continually pokes at the notion via Clerici's quest to attain it. "Does this seem like a normal house for normal people?" Clerici asks of a person he has just met, presenting his narcoticized mother's crumbling mansion. What, this viewer wondered, is a normal house for normal people? And what kind of answer might Clerici expect from this new acquaintance, who is one of Mussolini's hatchet men?

As you might expect from a film that quotes Plato's parable of the cave at length, The Conformist is a work of ideas. But it's also a very physical film. It's not just the sensuality within it--the maid slurping spaghetti at the dining-room doorway, the promising look she steals from Clerici, Clerici and his bride's enactment of her childhood abuse (and his).

Clerici is a man on the move (in practical terms into marriage and from Italy to Paris and back), and Vittorio Storaro's crafty camera moves with him. The film's signature technique is a sideways tracking shot whose back and forth motion imitates Clerici's own pacing between different situations and different definitions of normal. Trintignant gives Clerici a mincing, worried run; he is always in a stiff rush to hit his mark, where he then assumes practiced cool, fedora set just right.

Of course, when he is supposed to actually hit his mark, according to the plan he devised and the secret police approved, all that cool falls apart. (And Storaro, the master behind Apocolypse Now, first goes still and then, with a handheld camera, jumbled.) Partly it's because of a woman (arch beauty Dominique Sanda). Mostly, I suspect, it's because France (at least in 1938) is not Italy, and in Paris Clerici cannot find the normal in murder. Bertolucci describes the political differences architecturally: In Italy, the buildings overwhelm the people comically (an influence on Brazil?); in Paris, people dash in and out of shops, find the Eiffel Tower disappointing, and prance in a long chain that embraces a dance hall and finally Clerici.

The latter scene delights in ambiguity. Clerici's wife (Stefania Sandrelli), dressed in white crossed with black, dances teasingly with Sanda's cream-gowned Anna, while Clerici dances from and to that hatchet man (Gastone Moschin), who wants to remind him of his purpose. The beautiful women lead the dancers in a romping line that ends in a tightening spiral around Clerici. His face tenses further. He may follow the crowd, but he finds it suffocating.

Clerici's ostensible reason for this anxious lust for normality is his abuse, at 13, at the hands of his chauffeur, and his young self's reaction. But, in another crowd-buffeted scene at film's end, Bertolucci pulls Clerici's explanation out from under him. Yes, the boy was mistreated--even by fate--but by no means does it excuse what the adult has done, is doing. (All the acts of violence here look ugly and petty--glamorous they're not.) As with more recent films such as Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin and Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education, the question becomes: What comes after trauma (sexual or political)? How will you choose to live?

Early on, Clerici asks a blind man what a normal man is. "He loves people like himself," comes the response. But what Clerici loves and what he is are two different things. And perhaps that is the truth that resonates most in America in 2005, from this most appropriately timed rerelease.

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