March 03, 2008

The Conformist: Fascism's beauty and Liberalism's untidy charm

The Conformist has just been re-released in the UK- it was made in 1970, one of the first films of the Italian director, and now elder statesman of cinema, Bernard Bertolucci. It is about the career trajectory of a Fascist secret policeman in the Italy of the 30s and 40s, the reasons for his Fascism and the things that he has to do- including murder his old Professor- in order to maintain his career in the secret police. Its a fascinating film on many levels- for what it reveals about the cod-Freudianism of the 1970s for example- and it is a beautiful film, with some truly spectacular shots. It is this beauty which actually is the point at which the film reaches profundity and says something which is important about Fascism as a concept and conformity as an ideal. Bertolucci was trying to say something about the aesthetic of the movement in the 20s and 30s and also about the aesthetic of liberalism, he was trying to demonstrate to us something about different kinds of beauty and their political value and through the film, through the use of different shots to deal with different characters and the use of situation, he manages to demonstrate this approach.

The first scenes of the film involve mainly our fascist character, Marcello Clerici, crossing vacant corridors, saluting pristine guards etc. Dressed in a sharp suit, and moving at a comically fast pace, reminiscent of some film noir sequences- the character embodies a certain aesthetic. Bertolucci is keen to photograph Clerici's fascist period at oblique angles- in one sequence a car drive is photographed diagonally upwards from the wheel. He dwells on the long corridors and lines of the Fascist aesthetic. When Clerici meets his future wife, Giulia, she is dressed in a skirt which is crossed by black and white lines. You get the sense that the Fascist aesthetic is about forcing the natural curves of a woman's body into lines, into the strict artificiality of a political system. The point is of course that the same could be said of Clerici's conscience, he too is being forced from curves into lines, from complication into loyalty by dictatorship. You see the image repeated all over the place. Clerici's father confined to a mental asylum repeats a description of freedom endlessly, but repeats it in a stark void. A white prison, sanitised, whose benches stretch out in seemingly endless lines without a break for an individual to sit upon them. The white artificiality of the scene reminds us of the purification that Fascism involves- a single solution to every problem- and a diagnosis of madness for those who do not adhere exactly- for those that maintain their individuality.

However the film does not merely portray fascism, it also portrays liberalism. Clerici is sent by his Fascist bosses to assacinate his old Professor who lives in Paris. When he goes to see his old Professor, he goes with his newly wed wife, Giulia, and meets the Professor's wife, Anna. In reality the meeting with the Professor turns into a complicated sexual game- as Anna seduces Clerici and spiritually seduces Giulia, the Professor spiritually seduces Giulia and the two men fence ideologically. But the key point here is the conception of beauty. Counterposing Anna, in her classical dress- looking very like Anna Karina in Goddard, to Giulia in the first scene she appears in is intriguing and demonstrative (Giulia eventually ends up dressing like Anna more and more, a conversion to liberalism in sartorial form). Anna's dresses are elegant but they run with her body not against it- they emphasize her shape, they don't tyrannise over it. We could mention other things too- the aesthetic of the places that they go in Paris is again different to the aesthetic of the long corridors and lonely saluting functionaries of Italy. Firstly Paris is filled with people- people are always everywhere- even when the Professor's colleagues (and ideological sympathisers) escort Clerici to see him, these are people dressed not in uniform but their own style. Secondly Parisian architecture is not so bleak and linear- but curves and the spaces are confined.

Perhaps the most important element in which Paris and Italy differ in the film is sexual though. In liberal Paris sex is available and emotional. The sexual escape that Clerici finds with Anna is an expression of freedom, desire and emotional commitment. Clerici, Anna tells us is a coward, we know that though already for he is getting married in order to avoid sexual commitment. He is getting married precisely to fulfil the bourgeois ideal, a family uncontaminated with the dirt of sex, with the difficulties of emotional entanglement. For Clerici there is only the relationship with the prostitute and the wife- both of them clean of entanglement- both of which are endorsed by the Catholic priest in confession and both of which are imprisoning. Anna though and her husband offer something different: sex for them is something to be enjoyed, to be sensed and to be welcomed. The liberal aesthetic is liberating literally- and it is hedonistic. The Fascist aesthetic is repressive. Nowhere is this less evident than in a scene at the end of the Parisian phase of the movie. The four characters go to a dance and the two women- Anna and Giulia- dance together in an exceedingly sensual and sexual manner- they then lead a conga off from the dance hall, leaving Clerici and his fascist 'minder' alone together for a moment. Clerici walks into the middle of the hall and the conga returns surrounding him in his confusion. While everyone else in the room is filled with joie de vivre, Clerici is upset and confused by the spectacle of the joy of other people, by the liberating neglect of persona to fulfil personal happiness.

In a sense, Bertolucci offers us an aesthetic commentary on Orwell. Orwell, in 1984, tells us that for Julia and Winston Smith the ultimate act of liberation was no holds barred sex- the act in itself, purged of the misplaced purity that Big Brother granted it, was the ultimate revolution against totalitarianism. For Bertolucci, that much is true as well. But Bertolucci is making a more subtle aesthetic point- the Fascist aesthetic confines and requires conformity. Requires a man to marry a wife he does not love, to abandon the principal of enjoyment for a spurious sacrafice to the desires of society, requires strict linear fashion. The liberal aesthetic is more natural and based on pleasure- like C.S. Lewis's God, the Liberal is a hedonist at heart, promising pleasures evermore. The point of the film is not so much about the origins of conformity- as about its nature. Conformity by its very nature is forced and requires a human being to give up their own desire in pursuit of that which society offers- salutes, huge offices and long corridors. Bertolucci is keen to make us realise that of course this is suppression- the Fascists have mistresses- and it leads to unhappiness and to mental asylums confining those who talk of freedom. What it doesn't lead to is spontaneity, pleasure and happiness, what it doesn't lead to is all the quirky, difficult and different relationships that humans construct in order to help themselves live in comfort on this planet. What it doesn't lead to is the emotional entanglements of actual life- in attempting to reduce life, art and sex to the prism of perfection, it drains them of their meaning and imposes upon the world a falsehood that the world eventually cannot bear. The conformist finds a conga- an expression of undiluted pleasure- a scary revelation of the fact that pleasure is both spontaneous and untidy.

In the film, we see Fascism's endpoint as well as its beggining. The conformist uses that end point of course to reveal to the new authorities- a mob singing revolutionary songs- the Fascist careers of others. But in reality he has not changed- he has not discovered the essence of liberalism- the spontaneous untidiness of life, rather he wants to force people into a new line. Unforgiving he is the puritan inquisitor, the communist show trial prosecutor, the fascist secret policeman, forever worried about what society demands as social or sexual or aesthetic tithe. But he cannot acheive either happiness or spontaneity!