By John Stiller
“Why are you so hostile?”
“Because I am sincere.”
The above exchange of dialogue occurs about 3/4ths of the way through Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, his 1970 film, based on the Alberta Moravia novel of the same name. Taking place within the dark current of Mussolini’s Italian police state in the lead up to the disaster of World War II, it is the story of Marcello, a flunky who works for the secret police.
The first line of dialogue quoted above is from Marcello. He has come to Paris, ostensibly for his honeymoon, but is there for a much more sinister purpose: he has been assigned to kill his former Professor of Classics, who left Italy for Paris after Mussolini came to power (through democratic elections it should be noted) and has become a thorn in the image of the new Italy. The Professor’s constant criticism of Italy’s descent into fascism has been deemed a threat, and Marcello, desperately eager to please, conform, and be thought of as “normal,” agrees to kill him.
The second line of dialogue is from Anna, the professor’s much younger and attractive wife. She welcomes Marcello (and his ditzy wife Giulia) into her home with the Professor as if it’s a social call, simply an old pupil trying to reconnect with a former teacher. But Anna recognizes him immediately for who he is and why he is here. She attempts to put up a good front, but when she and Marcello are alone, she cannot help herself and her tone reveals how much she hates Marcello, and everything he represents.
What does Marcello represent exactly? He is the perfect example of a citizen living in a fascist police state, who says the right things, is obedient, and does what he is told when he is told. The reasons for Marcello’s intense desire to fit in and be thought of as normal go beyond the simple need for self-preservation any average person might adopt when living in an authoritarian state. No, for Marcello, his reasons are far more personal. He is gay. He cannot accept this, since to be gay in Italy at that time was probably the worst thing a person could be.
When we’re introduced to Marcello at the beginning of the film, he is preparing for his wedding to Giulia. When he describes his future wife to a friend of his (one of the only true friends Marcello has, who happens to be, in an intensely obvious bit of symbolism, a blind man), Marcello describes her as, “Mediocre. A mound of petty ideas. Full of petty ambitions. She’s all bed and kitchen.”
Giulia is also intensely beautiful and carries with her all of the ideas and fantasies that a teenage girl has about romance and sexuality (even though she’s in her early twenties): her idea of passion is ripped from the pages of a cheap, torrid romance novel, driven by her natural lust for the unknown, the underneath, the repressed, and then simultaneously reverting back to the “good girl” or the “Madonna,” as is typical of someone raised in highly-traditional Catholicism.
Giulia though, is unware of how repressed and controlled she is. Marcello knows it (or at least he thinks he does.) But at this point in the film, as he prepares to get married, Marcello is very rational. He has no attraction for Giulia in the slightest. He is actually repulsed by her, for her blind adherence to the ideals of a petty bourgeois, and also because he feels no sexual attraction for women.
This is made abundantly clear when we first see Marcello and Giulia together in her apartment (where she lives a sheltered life with her mother and a maid). She throws herself on Marcello, declaring her love and practically begging him to have sex with her right away. He kisses her and touches her back, in an attempt to placate her and be the “normal” man he wishes to be, but it’s all mechanical, robotic, as if he’s attempting to figure out a complex question of mathematics, not the way a typical man would react to a beautiful woman throwing herself at him. When it gets too close to actual sex, Marcello pulls away, making an excuse about the maid walking in on them. He nails the coffin on the issue by mumbling something about the priest not giving them absolution if they have sex, since they are not married yet.
This issue comes up later, after they are married, when on their “honeymoon” in Paris. Giulia complains about the fact that they “haven’t made love yet.” This frustration on her part comes after she and Marcello walk through Paris and she sees the Eiffel Tower in the distance. She gushes on and on about her need to “want to climb to the top of the tower.” Marcello tells her great, let’s go, let’s do it. (During this exchange, they are both framed with the Eiffel Tower rising phallically in the distance behind them.)
She is thrilled that Marcello wants to go with her. This comes to a crashing halt though when Marcello hails a taxi, places Giulia in the back seat, and then closes the door and tells driver to go to the Eiffel Tower. Only he does it standing on the street by the taxi. The taxi then drives off and Marcello walks away quickly, and we barely glimpse Giulia’s confused and baffled expression through the taxi’s window, as she tries to understand why her husband isn’t interested in “climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower with her.”
This is because at this point, Marcello has a new attraction: the Professor’s young wife Anna. Anna is just as beautiful as Giulia, but there is something different about her. She represents a life and a persona that simultaneously attracts and repulses Marcello: she is an authentic person. She lives openly and honestly, expressing her opinions (the “sincerity” that Marcello describes, rightly, as “hostile”) and doing what she pleases. Marcello sees this in her immediately, and attempts to seduce her, a desperate attempt to finally free himself from the cage he has created for himself. One could say that Marcello really isn’t gay because of the way he throws himself at Anna. I would argue that Marcello’s attraction to Anna is intellectual, more so than physical. He is attracted to her freedom and her honestly, not her body.
But Anna knows what’s going on. She knows Marcello is there to kill her dissident husband, Professor Quadri. With this in mind, she pretends to be sexually interested in Marcello, with the idea that she can somehow “convert” him (to her and the Professor’s own political views, not to heterosexuality.)
Anna’s relationships with the much older Professor is also a relationship based on intellectual attraction, not physicality. This is made clear when Anna takes Giulia shopping in Paris and they begin to become more and more intimate. Anna eventually leads her onto the dance floor at a Parisian café, full of straight couples dancing. Their dance is so charged and seductive that eventually all of the other dancers stop to watch them. When it’s over, Giulia giggles like a giddy, embarrassed school-girl. Anna is taking this much more seriously though.
There is a later scene where Anna helps Giulia change into the some of the new clothes they bought together, and Giulia becomes uncomfortable because Anna caresses her naked body in a way that is sensual, not platonic. This shows that Anna is most-likely a lesbian, and has a strong attraction to Giulia. This might also explain Marcello’s intense desire for Anna. He somehow is able to see that Anna is like him, only she prefers women, whereas he prefers men.
Marcello though is unable to escape his own fear of living openly as a gay man. Though he is obviously conflicted, he eventually sets up the Professor and Anna, leading to both of their deaths. The Professor and Anna are driving in a forest, and have a “car accident.” As the Professor gets out to check on the passenger of the other car (against the vehement protests of Anna, who knows it’s a trap), a group of men, all wearing dark trench coats and hats, (resembling in dress Marcello, or the killers from Orson Welles’ adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial) emerge from the woods and stab him multiple times, in a scene that’s an obvious allusion the murder of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s most famous political play.
But Marcello does not participate. There is no moment for the Professor to turn to his former student and say “Et tu, Brute?” This is because Marcello sits in a car a distance away from the murder and watches it coldly. He is too cowardly to even embrace the murder that is the end result of living under fascism and complete sexual repression.
As he sits there, Anna runs towards the car and sees him sitting in the backseat, as he watches the murder in front him. She doesn’t say anything, or even beg for help. All she does is scream in horror at what is happening. Anna has underestimated how hollow and empty Marcello’s repressed sexuality has made him. In forcing to accept what the face of fascism and conformity bring about, to its utter brutality and sadism, she can do nothing except express her own unbounded terror and fear at a set of ideals and values that could produce someone as monstrous as Marcello. She stops and attempts to run into the woods to save herself, but the other men, who have finished off her husband, chase and shoot her. She dies screaming in the woods, her faced covered with blood.
The secret that has been driving Marcello throughout the film is an experience he had in childhood, which is revealed early on when he goes to confession (I’m being a little coy by revealing this secret in this review much later than when it’s released in the film.)
When Marcello was around ten years old, a young man, his family’s chauffer, took him into a small abandoned room and attempted to molest him. The scene proceeds at an eerie pace as we realize what’s happening, but we are taken off guard when the young Marcello responds positively to what the chauffer is doing. While for the chauffer, this is an act of rape, but for Marcello, this is the equivalent of losing his virginity. He seems to reciprocate his attraction to the young man.
But they do not get very far. Marcello is too young to understand sexual desire, and he breaks away, grabs a gun that the chauffer was carrying and begins shooting wildly around the room, eventually hitting the chauffer, leaving him for dead (or so the film leads us, and Marcello, to believe.) We later see the young Marcello shaking, sitting in the corner of the room with this arms around his knees, desperate to grasp a hold of something that makes sense after what the chauffer has done to him, and what he did in his response.
At this point, sex and violence are grotesquely woven into Marcello’s psyche, so that from then on he views his own homosexuality as one that can only be satisfied with repression, secrecy, and ultimately, when no sexual release is given to him, brutal violence.
The film ends in 1943, when Mussolini leaves office, as Italy is falling apart from the war. Marcello listens to the radio broadcast announcing the downfall of the dictatorship, but he seems indifferent. He has so repressed his emotions he can barely even feel fear at this point. After the broadcast, he wanders around his apartment and we see his young child, who Marcello attempts to comfort and play with, but again, it’s mechanical, forced. There is almost no human emotion left in him.
Giulia is there, but she is not the happy, carefree girl she used to be. She is still attractive, but she seems exhausted and weary, unable to understand why her entire worldview is being undermined by the crumbling of Mussolini’s new “Roman Empire.” I’m sort of projecting at this point, because Giulia never expresses a political idea in the film. She couldn’t care about fascism, communism, Mussolini, Hitler, it doesn’t matter to her. As long has her comfortable middle class existence is not threatened, she will stay as politically insular and ignorant as she always has been. Compare her to many contemporary Americans and you’ll see a very scary correlation.
(I realize that I have written about Giulia in a rather condescending tone, which isn’t entirely fair. It’s not that I think Giulia is unintelligent: in the right set of circumstances, she might have ended up like Anna: liberated, authentic, in charge of her own life. But Giulia exists in a system that protects her and keeps her ignorant, so she is unable to attain authentic self-hood—Giulia reminds me of the middle school girl I overheard leaving a movie theater one time. I don’t remember the movie we saw, but before it there was a preview for the film Pearl Harbor. Her response to the preview was, “What’s Pearl Harbor?”)
Marcello decides to go out into the streets because he “wants to see what the fall of a dictatorship looks like.” Also, his old friend, the blind man, has called and would like to see him. Giulia warns him not to go out, but Marcello isn’t afraid at all. He behaves as the emotionless monster he is now.
In the streets, as he walks with his friend, he listens to the conversations of people around him, and they talk about having to eat cats and mice to avoid starvation. He eventually hears a voice from the past. It’s an older, thin man, who is talking to a much younger, handsome one, attempting to get him to come over to his house, with the promise of real food. Marcello recognizes the voice and confronts him. It’s the chauffer he thought he killed so long ago.
Suddenly, Marcello’s emotions return. He begins screaming at the man, calling him a fascist and murderer, asking where he was on two specific dates: the first date is the occasion where the chauffer attempted to molest the young Marcello. The second date is the day of the murder of Professor Quadri and Anna. He becomes more enraged, blaming him for his entire life as a “conformist.” The chauffer is the one guilty of killing the Professor and Anna, and not him. People begin to stare at Marcello as he grabs the chauffeur and threatens him. Eventually, the chauffer runs off, and Marcello has no one left to blame for his own crimes. He then begins screaming at this blind friend, accusing him of being a fascist and murderer.
This is the finally recourse of a man who has let repression dominate his life so much that he has become a vile “worm” (to use a term that Anna calls him around the time she first meets him). He will do anything to save himself. But by “save himself,” I don’t mean his life: staying in the closet is the only thing that matters to Marcello—that is what he’s trying to save: his life of repression within the chains of the cave he’s created for himself (the Professor and Marcello discuss Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” at one point in the film). His fear and shame of being gay has driven him to the point of near madness.
The film ends on a surreal note. The young man the chauffer was attempting to seduce lays naked on a bed in an alley, in darkness, looking at Marcello. Marcello is standing a few feet away. He walks behind a row of bars where a small fire is burning. He sits down and stares at that naked man on the bed, but they are separated by the bars. Marcello stares at him as the fire burns next to him, illuminating his face. This is the end for him. (I doubt Marcello will live long after the end of the film. He’ll either be killed by ordinary Italian citizens or partisans who revolted against Mussolini and took revenge on the supporters of his regime when the tide of war changed. Or he probably will just commit suicide soon.)
Marcello can only stare at the beautiful naked man he cannot reach from behind bars, recognizing that he might have had a chance at a real, authentic life, if he had somehow been able to accept who he was, as a gay man, different from the rest. But it’s too late at this point. Marcello, Mussolini, and all of fascist Italy are now dead.
“How disgusting! I’ve always said so. Make me work in the shit – sure, but not with a coward! It’s up to me! Cowards, homosexuals, Jews – they’re all the same thing! If it were up to me, I’d stand them all against a wall!”
–this line is spoken by Marcello’s associate Manganiello during the murder of Anna and the Professor. He is fellow assassin who is disgusted that Marcello will only stare at the screaming Anna from behind the glass window of the car in the back seat. Marcello has a gun and he could shoot her. But he doesn’t.