Kline has also observed that since the film is built around a series of reminiscences presented in flashbacks within flashbacks, for viewers to make sense of the plot they must read the images each scene presents associatively, rather than analytically. Therefore, association is the key to interpretation, which is possible by putting together, as an analyst does when he or she listens to a patient, the various clues that are presented (1987: 91–2). These elements and chronologies give Il Conformista an oneiric quality, for they operate in line with the processes of the Freudian latent dream work, which are condensation, displacement, projection, and doubling (Bondanella 1994: 301). They also imply, as Marcus argues, that Marcello’s subjectivity is the source of the camera’s perspective and that Bertolucci’s visual style, with its surrealistic mise en scène, is to be regarded as the visual representation of Marcello’s disturbed psyche (1986: 295–6).
With Il Conformista Bertolucci also contested Godard’s anti-commercial cinema and announced the end of Godard’s influence on his cinematic style. He rejected the approach to political filmmaking the French director had developed at the time of his most intransigent Maoism, immediately after the events of May 1968, and that was characterised by a search for more radical forms to express political ideas (Loshitzky 1995). Robin Wood has argued that, at a stylistic level, Il Conformista, with its elaborate tracking shots, opulent colour photography, surrealistic visual incongruities and play of light and shadow, is testament to the full blossoming of an artistic flamboyance influenced by Orson Welles, Max Ophüls and Josef von Sternberg (2000: 265). Arguably, then, the scene of the murder may be seen as the final act of Bertolucci’s Oedipal journey to Paris to ‘kill off’ his cinematic father figure.
While Quadri is stabbed, Marcello sits and passively watches the assassination through the window of Manganiello’s car. His immobile form, frozen in a dreamlike dimension, reminds us of the immobility of the cinematic spectator, of the dreamer and of the enchained people in Plato’s allegory. If, as Christopher Wagstaff has pointed out, ‘looking is central to the cinema, and doubly so to Il Conformista, where Marcello does not so much do things as watch things, and where the viewer watches Marcello watch’ (1983: 68), then with this powerful scene Bertolucci urges viewers to consider the dynamics of spectatorship and our engagement with such images. When Quadri, after he and Marcello have retold the myth of Plato’s cave, urges his former student not to mistake the shadows of reality for reality, the skilful lighting of the scene makes the professor look like a shadow on a wall of light, which reinforces Bertolucci’s message about the illusionary nature of his art (Kline 1987: 86–7).
When viewing Il Conformista through an Oedipal lens, it is difficult to disagree with Kline’s view that ‘if it is his “destiny” to kill the father, Bertolucci succeeds where Marcello has not: he manages his murders (of Moravia and Godard) on a purely symbolic and creative level’ (1987: 105). By adopting an experimental cinematic technique, Bertolucci transformed traditional narrative elements into an oneiric journey through memory and the past, making viewers aware of the very nature of the cinematic experience while urging them to reflect upon the ambiguous relationship between authority and creativity, looking and action, reality and illusion.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Italy, France, West Germany. Production Company: Mars Film/Marianne Productions/ Maran Film. Producers: Giovanni Bertolucci, Maurizio Lodi-Fè. Director and Screenwriter: Bernardo Bertolucci. Cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro. Editor: Franco Arcalli. Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant (Marcello Clerici), Stefania Sandrelli (Giulia Clerici), Enzo Tarascio (Professor Quadri), Dominique Sanda (Anna Quadri).]
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Marylin Goldin, ‘Bertolucci on The Conformist’, Sight and Sound, Vol. 40, No. 2, 1971, pp. 64–6.
Jefferson Kline, Bertolucci’s Dream Loom: A Psychoanalytic Study of Cinema, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.
Josepha Loshitzky, The Radical Faces of Godard and Bertolucci, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1995.
Millicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1986.
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Sergio Rigoletto, ‘Contesting National Memory: Masculine Dilemmas and Oedipal Scenarios in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Strategia del ragno and Il Conformista’, in Italian Studies, Vol. 67, No. 1, February 2012, pp. 124–46.
Christopher Wagstaff, ‘The Construction of Point of View in Bertolucci’s Il Conformista’, in The Italianist, No. 3, 1983, pp. 64–71.
Christopher Wagstaff, ‘Bertolucci: An Italian Intellectual of the 1970s Looks at Italy’s Fascist Past’, in Graham Bartram, Maurice Slawinsky and David Steel (eds), Reconstructing the Past: Representation of the Fascist Era in Post-War European Culture, Keele, Keele University Press, 1996, pp. 202–13.
Robin Wood, ‘Il Conformista’, in Tony Pendergast and Sara Pendergast (eds), International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: 1 FILMS, Farmington Hills MI, St. James Press, 2000.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.