Bernardo Bertolluci's 1970 film "The Conformist", based on a novel of the same title by Alberto Moravia and available to rent on YouTube for a very reasonable 99 pence (!) is a story of social camouflage during the oppressive Fascist regime under Mussolini and spans the height of this period to its eventual fall in 1943.
As mentioned in my previous review of "C'eravamo Tanto Amati", the main draw of this film for me was Stefania Sandrelli since I'd been following her film career throughout lockdown, from her debut in Pietro Germi's "Divorce Italian Style", and in some respects her role in this film could be viewed as a turning point in her career as an Italian actress of a later generation prepared to take on edgier roles, in this case that involved some quite erotic scenes with her co-star Jean Louis Trintignant.
Throughout the 1970's and into the 1980's she appeared a number of erotic themed commercial films that never strayed into outright pornography and appears to have emerged with her reputation as a gifted actress intact during a period when attitudes to sexuality and the portrayal of women in particular in film reflected those in wider society, at least where European cinema is concerned.
After watching the film - another first-time viewing - I googled the Wikipedia page and was surprised to note the various critical responses on its initial release, many of which it seemed to me, missed the point, choosing instead to focus on how closely Bertolucci's adaptation followed Moravia's novel, or on the creativity of the camerawork, with the conclusion being that it failed to draw any particular conclusion about Trintignant's portrayal of "Marcello Clerici", a supporter of the Fascist regime and an agent of the secret service whose aim it is to expose and eliminate individuals who oppose the regime, with the end result being ambiguous.
Of course this can occur with a first viewing and I know from experience that a film can appear quite different after several viewings, especially if subtlety in meaning and intent of the director are hidden by layers of technique, as is the case with this film.
This isn't so much a story of the excesses of the Fascist regime as it is about how people often strive to hide their true nature or beliefs in order to survive when there are changes in the social or political landscape, and could be applied in many situations.
Clerici (Trintignant) never fully admits his loyalty to the regime to his close confidante "Italo" (José Quaglio), a broadcaster for a pro-Fascist radio station who is also blind, but he is willing to toe the party line for reasons that become apparent via a series of flashbacks to his early life.
Meanwhile, he has become engaged to "Giulia" (Stefania Sandrelli), a sexually precocious young woman from the middle classes, even though they are not matched intellectually.
The film opens with a scene set in Paris and where Clerici is seen in bed with a sleeping woman who remains a mystery at this point in the sense that we never see her face. He leaves the woman to rendezvous with another agent of the regime "Mangianello" (Gastone Moschin) and it is revealed during their drive into the countryside outside Paris that they are on a mission to assassinate someone opposed to the Fascist regime.
The film is structured around this opening sequence with occasional flashbacks to it, the frame dominated by Trintignant's "Clerici", with Mangianello's off-screen voice provoking memories in the conflicted agent.
To all intents and purposes, Clerici is a heterosexual Italian male ready and eager to settle down and live a "normal" life, as a prescribed by the regime, with his new wife, but flashbacks reveal that he is conflicted about his sexuality and when his wife-to-be insists that he attend a confessional to absolve himself of any previous indiscretions. The priest teases out of him a guilty secret that tortures his conscience, which is that as a young boy from an aristocratic family he was taunted about his sexuality and then narrowly escaped being sexually assaulted by the family chauffeur, "Lino", that ends when he shoots and presumably kills him with Lino's own pistol.
The priest is further shocked when he hears that Clerici is a member of the Fascist secret police, in the knowledge that torture and murder are part of their modus operandi.
These details reveal that Clerici is prepared to hide the fact that he is both a member of the bourgeoisie and also a possible homosexual, acting under the guise of being a loyal party member, knowing that the regime lumped such people alongside Jews and other perceived "undesirables", and as such were marked for removal.
His marriage to Giulia (Sandrelli), as someone from the lower middle classes, is another attempt to hide his class even if their only bond is a physical one and his true feeling lie with "Anna Quadri" (Dominique Sanda), the young wife of the anti-Fascist intellectual and Clerici's former teacher and acquaintance, Professor Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarasci), who is a political exile in Paris.
Anna Quadri appears to be working for the anti-regime underground movement, at one stage posing as a prostitute with the aim of entrapping members of the secret police, and who was Clerici's former lover. Clerici's mission is to eliminate his former teacher in Paris, which adds further to his conflicted feelings regarding his loyalties, but it is clear that his own personal survival is more important and is driven out of a fear of being exposed.
Before embarking on his mission he ties the knot with Giulia and while they are on a train to Paris for their honeymoon, Giulia reveals that she has lied about being a virgin and had been sexually initiated and abused for 6 years by her much older tutor, a detail which perhaps explains her psychological make-up. This leads to an erotic scene between her and Trintignant that Sandrelli appears to approach with few inhibitions when viewed in the context of an earlier generation of Italian actresses.
Given the later controversies surrounding Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris" regarding the coercion of Maria Schneider into agreeing to perform some controversial sex scenes it's possible to imagine that Sandrelli was coerced in a similar fashion, though it's not especially apparent and what's required of her or Trintignant is not particularly explicit, with the suggestion that Giulia's memories of abuse are something of a turn-on for Clerici, which lends to the scene a shocking quality.
The film's third act is set in Paris as Clerici and Mangianello track down Prof Quadri, and Clerici attempts to re-ignite his relationship with Anna, Quadris' wife, allowing her to accompany Giulia on shopping trips and to help her with her wardrobe. Anna uses this opportunity to try and seduce Giulia with the aim of alienating her from her new husband and to expose his true nature to her, but Giulia is an innocent who has no grasp of Clerici's occupation as a secret service member.
Clerici's meeting with Quadri forces him to reflect on his loyalties and beliefs but he is revealed to be a coward who can't bring himself to kill his quarry and so his employers change the strategy when Clerici discovers that he and Giulia have been invited to stay at Quadri's home in the country.
Picking up from the start of the film we see Clerici and Mangianello driving along a winding forest road while following Quadri and Anna in their car as they head for Quadri's country retreat. A car travelling in the opposite direction suddenly swerves in front of Quadri's car and stops, it's driver apparently unconscious. This forces Quadri to stop and get out to investigate but it becomes clear that this is a trap and from out of the wooded slope above them emerge Fascist secret service agents who proceed to stab him multiple times, as Anna watches horrified from the car and Clerici and Mangianello watch from a distance.
Having been tipped off that Clerici has lost his nerve, Mangianello has sought another method to complete their mission to eliminate Quadri.
Anna exits the car and begs Clerici to let her escape in his car, but he refuses and she runs into the woods pursued by the agents who then shoot and kill her.
The concluding part of the film, set after the fall of Mussolini, sees Clerici and Giulia, now with a small child, living in not particularly luxurious circumstances, as former Fascist sympathisers and collaborators are being rooted out by supporters of the new democratic government. He is called for a meeting with his old friend Italo and they rendevous on a bridge as democratic supporters march past them, worried that any signs of their former allegiances will expose them.
While walking through an area frequented by prostitutes and the homeless, they reflect on the economic ruin brought about by the Fascist government of which they were part and it is here that Clerici sees Lino, the former chauffeur who had tried to sexually assault him as a young boy, alive and working as a male prostitute. He confronts him angrily which causes him to run off before denouncing him for being a homosexual and a Fascist to approaching democratic supporters and then turns and betrays his old friend Lino for also being a supporter of the Fascist regime.
Clerici has no qualms about shifting his allegiances to save his own skin and the film ends with a shot of him somewhat ambiguously looking over his shoulder toward camera and at the young man, now naked, whom Lino was trying to solicit.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, the film raises all sorts of questions about complicity in many situations in order to protect livelihoods and reputations, and of how easy it is for beliefs to be undermined and compromised.
Vittorio Storaro's cinematography under Bertolucci's direction makes visual poetry of scenes in wintery Paris and particularly in the scene at the end where Anna is pursued by the Fascist agents through a wintery forest lit by afternoon sunlight, the visual beauty a stark contrast to her brutal murder, and in another scene where Clerici visits his cancer striken mother before accompanying her to an asylum where his father, a former secret service agent who participated in torture, is suffering from dementia, and features billowing autumn leaves shot very low to the ground, saving an experimental and disorienting "dutch tilt" for a sequence early in the film that I took to suggest Clerici's sliding loyalties under the Fascist regime, though it's possible to interpret it in a number of ways.
To sum up, far from being merely an exercise in style that never quite fulfils the intention of being a faithful adaptation of Moravia's novel, and certainly, visually stylish it is in many ways, Bertolluci's film is an unflinching examination of complicity arising from the consequences of hiding your true nature in order to fit in.
"The Conformist", Dir: Bernardo Bertolluci, 1970
YouTube, for purchase or rental.