The Conservative Fighters and the Liberal Conformists (With the Analysis of Shots from “The Conformist”)

When you feel “different”, you have to make a choice: to act with violence against the existing power or, like most people, to ask for the protection of this power. Marcello chooses to ask for the protection of the power. He became a fascist to have this protection that he needs.
Bernardo Bertolucci (BB), “Interviews”, Univ. Pr. of Mississippi, 2000, p. 71-72

What exactly made Marcello Clerici a conformist? – Childhood traumas, necessities of life under Mussolini’s regime, fixation on his individual life to the neglect of historical realities, his complex of a murderer, or some infantile erotic fixations?

The film begins with the most crucial “event” of Marcello’s life when he was employed by a fascist political agency, then “flashes back” into his childhood (tracing the etiology of his conformism), and then flows into the consequences of his (and many others’) existential surrender to conformism. The essence of this “event” (participation in the assassination of an antifascist activist and his wife) is that for the sake of his career Marcello has to betray his intelligence and his humanity – quite a widespread situation (look how American journalists and TV broadcasters are shut up and muted down in front of Bushfeld’s invasion of Iraq).

BB’s film is a rare investigation of the relationship between a totalitarian political system and people with liberal sensibility. How can they serve the fascist cause? With people of conservative sensibility the situation is much clearer. They are happy prostheses of the police, military and propaganda machinery – they are worshipers of power and admirers of tough leaders. They like to fight, beat up and humiliate those who are different from them – who personify the evil dangers. But why those with sensitive souls, intelligent minds and judicious hearts collaborate with fascism? Why people like Marcello are so prone to fall for a career during criminal times, and are ready to participate in so much inhumanity?

Several psychological complexes determine Marcello’s predilection for collaboration with fascist populist dictatorship. 1. The proclivity to position himself not inside the social power, as a part of it (fascist conservatives’ modus operandi), but in its shade, through the distance of non-identification (I am serving fascism but I am not its unconditional believer). 2. The tendency for “romantic” love (the one which has a super- existential, an absolute and as such an anti-existential coloration) – Marcello doesn’t have a need to incarnate what is emotionally valuable for him, into real life (as a result of having a-symbiotic mother and a distant father). 3. The need to prove his “normalcy” because of frightening childhood accident when a loaded gun went off – this episode made him believe that he killed another human being, and was complicated by a hint of erotic seduction etched in his memory by the mass-cultural motifs of “Eastern perfume” and “Madam Butterfly”. 4. Discreet philistinism, the need to have a “pillow comfort” kind of life (a smart desire to have everything in both ways – the readiness to betray not only others but also the truth, and be oriented on passive: conformist, success).

The very need to be psychologically protected by the social power (to be the good child of the system really deserving its protection) is a consequence of having felt under-loved and under-protected by ones parents in childhood. Similarly, “romantic” love is an unconscious attempt to restore the “borderless” symbiosis with a primary caregiver who was unavailable for this important experience of oneness. The gun accident combined with a failed erotic seduction suspended Marcello’s being between crime and punishment, vice and fear, inferiority and superiority, perversion and violence. His “conformism” through-out the whole fascist epoch was a behavioral form of suspension between being and non-being, between being sexually seduced and not being sexually molested, between being an outcast and being “like everybody else”.

Following BB observing Marcello’s destiny, we have to re-define fascism not in negative terms (like a system of megalomania and scapegoating where fight for ideological fetish takes extreme forms) but in liberal terms (like a system liberating people with delicate souls from the excess of psychological complications and complexes. Similarly, we have to redefine democracy not in the spirit of conservative perception (as a system that forbids the excesses of primitive pleasures of feeling greatness of us-ness and evilness of our enemies), but as a system that normalizes what fascists had considered as obstacles for glorious collective self-sacrifice – consumerism, self-indulgence, acting out infantile sexual fixations. Fascism satisfies the conservatives’ need to hate while oppressing the liberally sensitive. The fascist system is run and passionately supported by the people, who were abused in their childhood, but it also can use the services of those who were not abused (or, more exactly, who were under-abused).

Consumerist democracy and totalitarian oppression are both unable to help human liberation. The happy slavery of identification with the leaders and bosses (fascism) and happy slavery of being an appendix to your own complexes and obsessions (formal democracy) are psychological brothers, not real opposites.

The very difference between “dictatorship” and “democracy” BB frames by the two popular songs – one is performed by the female trio in the radio-studio when Marcello starts his “career”, and at the end of the film we hear the chorus praising the return to democracy. The impression of the first song is that the three angels were seducing the liberally sensitive people “to fall morally into sleep” under fascism, while at the end the ecstatic chorus of angels celebrating the victory over fascism is juxtaposed with the advent of homosexual desire in Marcello. In “The Conformist” democracy, instead of being a transformation from a violent society into a society encouraging the existentially spiritual development, is a life of private obsessions and consumerist pleasures – what fascist conformists are occupied with after the fascist period is over. It is this existentially spiritual emptiness that makes Marcello to return to his libidinously pre-Oedipal ontogenetic past – the same emptiness that makes the American liberals to jump on the band wagon of obsessive money-making.

Marcello, as a sensitive child, is challenged by three enigmas of human existence: the enigma of flesh (the secret of seduction), the enigma of mortality (the secret of violence), and the enigma of social power (the self-redemption through conformism). Conformism (the promise of redemption) situates a person in between the enigmas of flesh/seduction and of transgression/violence, in between erotic and violent impulses. While “erotic seduction” is “democratic”, violence is fascist. According to BB focusing on Marcello’s psychology, the transition from “seduction” to violence is the very transition from “democracy” to fascism. And the transition from fascism to democracy is one from violence to seduction. There is no place for existential spirituality in the standard transition from fascism to democracy. This makes this transition a fake one, a fraud.

If fascism is an extreme attempt at violence as an aspect of masses’ happiness, “democracy” is no less extreme attempt at encouragement of self-centeredness and self-indulgence. The transition from the first to the second is Marcello’s evolution from a secret agent to a homosexual. There is no actual homosexual desire in Marcello, only the need to use circumstances for his benefit, and his basic existential emptiness. The debunking of fascism in BB’s film becomes the debunking of democracy. Marcello under fascism becomes Marcello under democracy, Marcello the conformist (before the authorities) becomes Marcello the conformist (before his infantile obsessions and society’s calculated permissiveness – it’s better to have people like Marcello as a homosexuals and money-makers than as fighters for farther democratization of democracy).

The Imaginary transformation of Lino as an internal object of Marcello’s unconscious into Anna (as a “return of the repressed”) is an amazing example of the tricky nature of the human psyche with all the incompatibility between infantile and adult experiences and still with their bizarre unity created unconsciously by the subject through the magic bridge of metaphoric association.

The Semantic Richness of the Shots.

Picture 1-2. Marcello is transformed into a military training poster.

The Composition of these two shots gives us an opportunity to analyze the psychology of weapon use. Every shooting person must feel the closed door behind, the absence of chance to retreat, to be somewhere else, to avoid confrontation. Who closes the door? – Fear, one of the numerous ideologies of suspicion and intolerance, the need to belong to a group, identification with Goodness and/or Power and proneness to identify the carriers of otherness with Evil. These shots can also be read as a pictorial representation of human civilization. The addiction to war-making is at its very center, in the center of the shots. But the aesthetic embellishments that we usually identify as human culture are around in the form of vignettes representing the glorified mythological figures.

Picture 3. The composition of the shot deconstructs the superficial perception of Anna’s intention.
First, it suggests that Anna is an emancipated woman who is “open-doored” and free for any amorous adventure, she is “coffee-hotly” generous, and her legs are frivolously relaxed. In reality her playful with chair posture is consciously seducting. It tells Marcello: “I am ready for your piece of furniture if you will be a good boy.”

Pictures 4-5-6. Psychology of movie viewing and its existential context
In this shot BB provokes the viewers to identify with the position of the spectator and to feel as paralyzed to act as Marcello is himself. He (with his inability to help a person desperately appealing for his protection) is identified by the viewers’ unconscious as somebody who is just watching a movie. Marcello as if becomes “one of us”, movie-spectators. The psychology of the medium covers-up the human betrayal.

This still illustrates how the teachers of cinema as a medium address the topics of (passive) voyeuristic experience of the spectator looking at the screen. The viewer (here personified by Marcello) cannot react on the deadly menace to the film’s heroine because he is just a film viewer – his sentiments cannot be existential because they are defined by the situation of watching film. Marcello-the-conformist becomes a paradigmatic case of the film spectator’s conformist passivity. The psychology of viewing film is forced to metaphorically “explain” Marcello‘s existential cowardice – he cannot help Anna because he perceives life as a spectator. In the viewer’s unconscious the existential situation is forever fused with the process of movie perception.

Here BB puts film-viewing into a larger socio-political context. Emotionally passive viewing is a result of a morbid socio-political process that combines the growing danger of behaving in non-conformist way with the stimulation of pleasant consumerism (including the consumption of cinematic images). The car window (with wildly desperate Anna outside it) signifies the movie screen. Secret agent Manganiello in the driver’s seat observing the situation reminds us of the endless secret service agents today observing us without a court order. And the gun near Marcello signifies our passive “voyeuristic” endorsement of our political leaders’ military and financial adventures. Here the socio-political environment of film-viewing explains its “passivity” and also the conformism of today’s citizens. The task of philosophical cinema is to overcome the voyeuristic position of the viewer – to disturb his/her passive identification with the moving images – by stimulating a thinking that will be able to connect art with life’s problems. With “The Conformist” BB battles not only the commercial cinema (transforming spectators into passive consumers of images) but the specialists in film as a medium who by under-addressing the socio-political context of watching movies perceive the human social behavior as if it was determined by technology.

Pictures 7-8-9. Conformists need the protection of social power more than they do love or sex.
Anna deploys her seduction perhaps justifying it by her intention to convert Marcello from being a despicable collaborationist into a courageous fighter against fascism. Her seduction is not effective because Marcello’s love for her is stuck in an infantile sexuality where amorous object is a pure fantasy: is not incarnated into existential flesh-and-blood. It is comparatively easy for him to sacrifice Anna as an amorous object. What is underdeveloped in a conformist, beside the existentiality (reality) of love, is human compassion. He could be horrified by her destiny and could try to help her. But for him who doesn’t know the difference between a sexual object and a real person behind it, with the death of the erotic phantom the real person disappears too.

Between this and next shot…
…Marcello (whose face has lost all the Trintignant-like intelligence, it became severe, almost the face of a conservative) understood that Anna is trying to use him, and for her he is just a protecting agency. The beautiful pattern on the wings of the irresistible butterfly has suddenly darkened and disappeared. Conformists’ eroticism is underdeveloped – is fixated within the infantile modality of being imaginary. While the conservatives’ erotic objects are mainly conventional and often vulgar, the liberal conformists’ erotic objects are just phantoms.

Picture10. Marcello’s conformism complex

il-conformista-07The Adolescent Marcello inside Lino’s car and behind a “strong adult man” (the driver of a luxury car for the imagination of a young boy) feels as protected and supported as he will later feel during the fascist years of collaboration with power. If Marcello could be really abused by Lino he would then become justnanother Manganiello (a one-dimensional conservative) who is broken by the force of power and transformed into its slave (prosthesis of an abusive system). But Lino didn’t finish his job – non-abuse (under-abuse) creates a conformist desire to be under power’s protection (who was not- or was under-abused doesn’t know that power is abusive, is not protective, and that it seems safer to imitate it – to become co-abusive). While conservatives were physically abused in their childhood the liberal conformists were not – for this reason they still dream about collaborating with power (as American liberals still indulge in the dream of collaboration with neo-conservatives). Child-abuse tends to produce fascists by psychology. Conservatives serve power. Liberal conformists try to use power for self-protection.

Picture 11. The psychology of a conformist non-conformism
The professor is fully intended to sacrifice himself for the sake of defeating fascism. His face is sharpened by a solemn resoluteness. It is not difficult to imagine the chain of events he and his wife had planned: Luca heroically dies killed at the hands of the fascists; Anna is a witness who is helped by Marcello (a witness from the other side) to give the newspapers the big story about the murderous tactics of fascists. It didn’t happen like this. Neither Luca nor Anna understand psychology of conformism. They perceived Marcello according to a simplistic difference between a fascist by belief in fascism and a non-fascist as non-believer in fascism. They couldn’t imagine that liberals by sensitivity can serve the fascist system.

Picture 12. Conformist behavior needs quick redemption.
By praying Marcello reminds himself that he is a good and a kind person who is full of humility. In his unconscious prayer by a magic touch of Grace eliminates the sin of his conformism.

Picture 13. Megalomaniacal political dream
Marcello’s father is as if made blind by his megalomaniacal political dream (it’s quite a universal situation for human beings – political dreams can be not only fascist but Nazi, Communist, or corporate dream about global financial domination). Megalomaniacal dreams de-existentialize people’s behavior, make them lose rapport with human reality. Marcello’s father cannot see the real world and real people – he is forever fixated on his dream as a believer is on his god.

Picture 14. From fascism to democracy? – Not so simple.
In the final shot of the film Marcello is seen through the metal bars (is “behind bars”). Is it because he is imprisoned by his own psychological condition and looks outside with the hope to escape? Or, with Mussolini’s collapse, is he outside the bars and looking for a new psychological imprisonment? While traditional totalitarianism violently standardizes people’s private life by imposing on them hateful common ideals, today’s totalitarian system is much more indifferent to the versatility of models of private happiness but continues to repress the humanistic innovations in the public sphere (the common megalomaniacal/scapegoating standards of thinking – militarism and search for personal enrichment and corporate power, are alive and well).

Picture 15. Marcello confuses the important dates of his life.
Hysterically accusing Lino of fascism and pedophilia Marcello impulsively tries to repaint his public image: by the slip of tongue he mixes-up the two events – Lino’s unsuccessful attempt to molest him as a boy and his own “passive” participation in the murder of professor Quadry and Anna. He is as if trying to make a connection between the two events as though suggesting that the first event had a determining power over the second one. Marcello’s intuition’s (unconscious) message is that If the episode of his seduction hadn’t taken place he could have never participated in the political murder. The point here is to shift the blame for his own conformism to somebody else.

Posted o on 08 Nov 2014 –   “CONFORMIST” (1971) By BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI by Acting-Out Politics