Psychological portrait of a liberal fascist

When we think about “fascists” we usually imagine an authoritarian person who crudely believes in extremist political doctrine. – But what about the polite, delicate, tolerant and the rational fascists? Do they exist? Is it for them “logically” possible to exist? Bertolucci’s “Conformist” shows a person with a liberal sensibility, intellectual sophistication and existential taste as a collaborator with a despotic and ruthless political power and analyzes the reasons for this spiritual surrender (including not so much the sexual traumas from his childhood, although represented in the film quite elaborately, but a dream of social recognition as the ultimate proof of personal value). According to Bertolucci, inferiority complex feeds conformism, careerism and the compulsive need to grow in social status.

The hero of the film Marcello Clerici’s (Jean-louis Trintignant) mother was from an aristocratic family, his wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) – from a bourgeois background, and his “romantic” (sublimely obsessive) love – Anna, wife of professor-antifascist, is an eccentric female character – a “whore” in male jargon (Dominique Sanda). Here is the psychological vector of development of Marcello’s heterosexual sensitivity. Yes, there are some complications – in his childhood, at a pre-puberty age, Marcello was exposed to the episode of what can be called “incomplete seduction” when a strange man combining feminine sensuality and masculine bravado, tried to fascinate Marcello with his enigmatic appearance, his loaded gun and his eau-de-cologne. The scene has ended with what Marcello always thought – tragically, when he, without particular intention, shot the exotic seducer dead. In Marcello’s memory the eau-de-cologne became connected with the mysterious name “Madame Butterfly” mysteriously pronounced by his unsuccessful kidnapper, and much later became the ingredient of Marcello’s fascination with Anna, the emancipated/libertine woman who was her husband’s comrade in arms in their noble fight against Italian fascism.

Is Marcello’s conformist position towards Fascism during his adulthood result of his experience of being “incompletely seduced”? As a cause-effect connection or hard determination – not, but as a psychological correlation through time – probably, yes. His father, according to the film, was also a political conformist participating in repressing people, who went mad because of involvement in torture of the prisoners. Bertolucci made sure that the viewers have got it that for Marcello to learn about his father‘s reactionary activities and seeing him unable to live with the truth of what he had done (his psychotic, based on subdued conscience, regrets) was very important “orientation” for his choice of his future.

Marcello is an educated and intelligent person. He was never really exposed to fully traumatic situations which “breed” victims or violators, sufferers or brutes, but he was socially subdued many times and learned how to handle the repressive situations with a calculating cowardice that was egoistically oriented and a smart (non-impulsive) form of self-protection. Marcello never learned openness to the world and to other people. He became smoothly manipulative and covertly calculative. Bertolucci traces how Marcello’s adulthood assimilates the semi-traumas of his childhood in his organically self-centered posture. Anna, for whom Marcello felt a sincere erotic fixation was occupied with noble political fight and had, again, a very noble desire to convert Marcello into an antifascist. She tried with him seductiveness, “bitchiness” and helplessness in order to influence him. He wanted to be loved, but she wanted him to be a developed personality. May be, for this reason she wasn’t able to convert him – to save him from his conformist emotional entrenchment – into unity of personal love and noble political fight. The ability for psychological development cannot be grafted on the hurt and not healed plant.

Exceptional composer of the film music George Delerue wrote the musical themes of Marcello (the musicalized essence of his character), of Anna and of Manganiello (Marcello’s fascist assistant and in the same time secret informant about his behavior), based on a common harmonic “tree trunk”, as if, giving three branches – three various destinies.

Bertolucci’s virtuoso elaboration of Marcello’s psychological wanderings and how they are intertwined with the socio-political realities of fascism is a unique achievement of the intellectual cinema. The director is emphasizing the multi-sidedness of how totalitarian style of perception of life is uniting with people’s personal psychological predicaments. In our times when many educated people are, in essence, “betraying” democracy, not “ideologically” – not by changing their beliefs, but for the sake of careers, social success and, ultimately, “survival” (understood in a conformist way), Bertolucci’s understanding of the multiple forms of anti-democratic behavior in “Conformist” is very helpful for us to know.

A fascist marriage – no, no, more exactly, just a conformist one

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American mass culture was very popular in Fascist italy and Nazi Germany. In this shot we see how Marcello’s (Jean-Louis Trintignant) future wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) performs in front of him a new dance from “America”, that can be called “dance of human bird”.

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Fascist systems don’t repress mass-cultural sensibility – a combination of traditionalism and family-centered “fun”. Institution of marriage with its sensual and sentimental pleasures and symbiotic unity can thrive under fascism as much as…

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…married people’s mutual desire to enjoy marital mutuality, responsibilities and obligations including the basic one – to defend marital institution and castles and enjoy respectable social status of being successfully married.

Complex of the victim of “incomplete seduction”

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In his childhood Marcello went through the experience of incomplete sexual seduction by the adult man of enigmatic and exotic appearance. This episode that opened Marcello’s sexual curiosity and simultaneously made him “abstractly, generically” afraid defined his future predilection towards conformist position as an adult.

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Being impressed by his molester’s Parabellum pistol the boy Marcello starts to shoot randomly. He didn’t mean to kill. For him it was psychologically the way to unconsciously defile the world in order to self-assert, when shooting became a metaphor of his general (including sexual component) agitation. The air of transgression and self-defense against it mixed in the child-Marcello’s unconscious. He became not a fascist or anti-fascist, but a conformist, the possible pervert and the possible straight, the obedient servant of his superiors without identification with them, a creature with formal obedience, a loyal employee without simpleminded belief in his employer and without volunteering for heroic deeds, a family man and simultaneously romantic womanizer and circumstantial homosexual. His careerism is not passionate – it’s calculative, not hot, it’s a cool, without risky jumps ahead, but with exactitude of small steps.

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Many years later, Marcello (on the left of this shot), when Italian fascism has already fell, and he with his old fascist buddy went out to the streets free from farther career-making, he met his old “incomplete” sexual seducer Pascualino (Pierre Clementi) and completed the circle of conformist behavior in an amusingly delirious way. Still, post-fascist regime in Italy got its own assortment of conformist behavior.

Logic of antifascism

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Anna – the wife of the professor Quadri (in the center, on one knee, Dominique Sanda) and Giulia (Marcello’s wife, Stefania Sandrelli) are dancing amidst shocked and admiring public. In reality, Anna is trying to recruit Giulia into antifascist resistance.

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Professor Quadri and his wife as comrades in arms have decided to meet fascist menace face to face. They are prepared to realize their plan – professor is ready to sacrifice himself, and Anna – to be a witness of his murder to give the story of her husband heroism and martyrdom to the whole world (in order to mobilize more people to fight the totalitarian twins – Nazism and Fascism). In their courageous plan professor and Anna assigned some role for Marcello – he was supposed to help Anna after the assassination of her husband. It was a resourceful idea because Marcello obviously was in love with Anna and even offered her to leave everything behind and run together to South America. Quadri and Anna wanted to use Marcello‘s amorous sentiments to make him an antifascist and be rewarded by her reciprocal love. Our antifascist strategists overestimated Marcello’s humanity and underestimated his conformism. They assumed that his love for Anna is genuine, and it indeed, was sincere but sincerity of a conformist is of a very peculiar kind – it’s full of longings and dreams but simultaneously it’s full of irrational fears. Marcello is not a man of action but he is not a victim either. He is not this, nor that – he is a conformist. His seduction was not completed – in his case it was a sexual one, but it could be religious, ideological, into power games, into identification with authorities or into any passionate interests. He wasn’t seduced, and he became neither feeling oppressed, nor mutinous, and prone to what people call “betray”. In his perspective it is not a moral problem, but a psychological peculiarity.

The way of a conformist

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Already in the beginning of his career Marcello easily betrayed his mother’s lover (it means – his mother). And when the guy “disappeared” he never told her why. What is the importance of an ephemeral foreigner in comparison with his, Marcello’s, life?

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Marcello betrayed Anna whom he sincerely loved. Her love included the wider world with its inevitable conflicts, but Marcello grew up as a person fixated on private relationships. In this still we see the despair with which Anna appeals to Marcello’s help. But Manganiello (Gastone Moschin), special agent (with responsibility to help Marcello and to watch him at the same time), is furious why Marcello is not killing this “red whore”. For Marcello it was a choice – whom to kill, Manganiello or Anna, the woman he loves or the fascist with drastically reduced brains. Conformist’s choice is inept – sitting in the car Marcello shoots two times, not at Anna and not at Manganiello, but to nowhere. By this he still was able to keep his position but lost promotion. Anna was killed by others – there is no historical period in which there is a shortage of hired murderers. But not a conformist could do much worse than Marcello.

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From the fascist “wisdoms” of secret agent Manganiello: “Cowards, homosexuals, Jews…I’ll put them all against the wall…better yet eliminate them at birth!”

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On their honeymoon Giulia confessed to Marcello about being molested as a girl by her uncle and elaborately described what and how he did with her. It’s not that she invented unpleasantness that her uncle’s actions created in her then and now when she was narrating them. But for her it was fun to remember her confusion and fear. And for fun Marcello was repeating Giulia’s uncle’s gestures.

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But it was a time when Anna and Marcello thought that their future is possible (of course, each of them imagined it in his/her perspective). In this still we see them visiting luxury boutiques in the occupied Paris.

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As philistines of all nations want to visit the Eifel Tower before seeing anything else in Paris, Giulia tormented Marcello (worrying about his secret mission) to see it together in occupied Paris.

Posted – 25 Sep 2009 –   Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” [1970] (NSFW) = Psychology of Conformism During The Totalitarian Historical Periods  by Acting-Out Politics