The Conformist and fascist desire


This morning, I took rare advantage of my Netflix account and watched The Conformist (Italian: Il Conformista), a film by acclaimead director Bernardo Bertolucci. The movie, based on the novel of the same title by Alberto Moravia, follows the young Marcello Clerici’s attempt to lodge himself within the bureaucracy of Mussolini’s fascist Italy by carrying out an assassination on his former mentor, the political dissident and exile Professor Quadri. Along the way, Marcello confronts his childhood sexual trauma and parental alienation, and is forced to navigate his relationship with his petit-bourgeois wife Giullia and his attraction to the professor’s wife Anna. Honeymooning in Paris as an excuse to seek out his mark, Marcello’s commitment to the task waivers as he lusts for Anna and debates with Quadri.


Bertolucci paints a bleak and unsettling picture of fascism through Marcello’s relentless pursuit of the “normal.” For Marcello, society should be composed of those who resemble one another in habit; the outliers, on the other hand, should be excluded or repaired, re-made to fit in with everyone else. But what does it mean to be normal?

Marcello asks this question of his friend Italo (who is blind) at a party thrown by the local blind community in celebration of his upcoming wedding. Italo responds that a normal man “turns his head to see a beautiful woman’s bottom, and… sees that he isn’t the only one to turn his head.” While this statement is immediately curious for its sexualized and heteronormative character (one which is contested by several displays of homosexuality and gender fluidity throughout the film), it is doubly so for its emphasis on the literal gaze, as it is spoken by a blind man at a dance party composed entirely of blind people (besides Marcello).



Of course, Italo is himself quite the contradiction, as he is both blind and an avowed supporter of Italian-German fascism, even the most racialized components of Nazism — which is demonstrated in a speech he reads over the radio from a braille script. As is now well-known, the Nazi government interpreted the racial aspect of German identity  as necessitating the persecution and murder of the ‘bodily unfit,’ including blind people. This harks back to the central question of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: why would a people desire their own repression? Here, The Conformist seems to take a similar view to that of Wilhelm Reich: that fascism is a product of sexual repression, operating through social mechanisms such as the Catholic Church (where, Marcello notes, the clergy seems to object more to homosexuality than murder), norms against pre-marital sex (clearly an object of Marcello’s desire, but one which he avoids when other people, even a maid, may be around), and heteronormative culture (which prevents Italo from living up to his own standards of normality by virtue of his inability to see “a beautiful woman’s bottom” or to recognize that others see it too).

Deleuze and Guattari famously took a different stance: in schizoanalysis, it is not that sexual desire is sublimated under forces of repression which then feed into a desire for totalitarianism; instead, libido is directly connected to the political — “the social field is immediately invested by desire” [1]. Perhaps we may read some of this into the excitement Giullia displays (and the vigor of her encouragement by Anna) as she turns the rotor to print what is presumably an anti-fascist pamphlet in the scene shown below.


Visuality and blindness return in a more striking manner in a pivotal scene when Marcello meets with the professor in Paris for the first time. Upon entering the office, Marcello immediately closes the blinds, apparently echoing the professor’s own practice that he would undertake at the beginning of classes (which, according to Marcello, was because the professor hated “all that light, that noise” — another interesting contrast to Italo, for whom ‘the blinds,’ if you will, are always shut). Marcello then begins to recount Plato’s allegory of the cave, wherein prisoners are able only to see the shadows created by figures passing in front of a fire, and mistake those shadows of reality for reality itself. Quadri counters that Marcello must be well-acquainted with the meaning of the allegory as an Italian, perhaps implying that fascism requires a detachment from reality coupled with a dogged conviction to the contrary, just as the prisoners are convinced of the shadows’ reality.  At the end of their discussion, as Marcello has turned and stared at the shadow created by his silhouette, Quadri flings the blinds open again, filling the room with light and causing Marcello’s shadow to fade. The significance is unmistakable: anti-fascism shines light where the figure of fascism leaves a shadow. Mussolini’s government attempts to create a “new Italian” through “example” (Marcello’s words), but anti-fascist agitators like Quadri reveal that this process occurs violently in the darkness of secret prisons and interrogation rooms.


We may take this as a key to interpreting a few other ‘fascist spaces’ in the film. The first dance party scene begins with a shot of Italo standing in a room lit only minimally by light penetrating through high windows; then, as the camera pans to the viewer’s right, it shows shadows cast by pedestrians, until the colorful lights are turned on to illuminate the room. Later, when one of the partygoers begins to shout something about Il Duce (a.k.a. Mussolini), a scuffle ensues, and Italo shows no compassion to the agitator, asking only if “last time’s lesson wasn’t enough.”

Another dazzling scene taking place in the Palazzo dei Congressi, Mussolini’s headquarters, draws a similar parallel between fascism and shadow. Below, Marcello walks along a corridor lit only by light from outside; for fascist bureaucrats, shadows are all there is. I thought every shot in this series was pretty amazing and really set a tone for Bertolucci’s skill at using light and camera direction to show a location.


It’s worth noting how the end of the film depicts just how empty Marcello’s desire for ‘normality’ really is. The epilogue depicts the day of Mussolini’s removal from power; as young people march in the streets decrying anti-fascism, Marcello and Italo encounter upon Lino, a man who had traumatically molested the young Marcello. In his fury, Marcello first shouts that Lino is a fascist (presumably to draw the ire of the crowd), but quickly directs the same rebuke against Italo, despite having just removed a pro-fascist pin from his blind friend’s jacket moments before. This is the end-point of Marcello’s unflinching desire to fit in: he tries to sacrifice even his friends to gain the favor of whatever crowd may hold sway. However, as the marching crowd returns, it pays him no heed, and he stands still as the swarm simply moves around him, a striking display of the futility of his efforts to blend in.


Overall, I thought it was an excellent film — beautifully shot, with gorgeous colors and use of lighting and shadows, and a strong adaptation of what seems to be excellent source material. I couldn’t help but feel queasy about the way blindness is treated in the film, seemingly as a metaphor for people who choose a fascist government. That’s obviously messed up, although it’s hard to find any movies from that time period that don’t commit some kind of egregious social error. It’s still an interesting movie, but not much of an introduction to a truly anti-fascist life.

[1] Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Penguin Books: New York, 1977.


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