“Our bourgeoisie has a new joujou [plaything],” wrote an Italian film critic in response to Bertolucci’s latest film. It says a lot that this film has become not only the joujou (with all the connotations of chewing, slobbering and sucking) of the Italian bourgeoisie but also of bourgeoisie elsewhere.
It is a film that entices one to take endlessly long detours and twists and steps forward and backward in an atmosphere of uncertainty about its value and meaning. Every now and then, there are films that fall right into the pipeline of the critic’s letter stream: films on an (almost physically) identifiable “important” theme, in this case “Fascism”, but which have also built in a series of ambiguous shadows and mirror images, so that everyone is left searching for the filmmaker’s final “statement” on his subject. Quite strikingly, importance and vagueness go hand in hand.
It is one of those films that give the bourgeois intelligentsia the impression that not all films have to be dumb, that in cinema interesting things can be said, too. The weighty atmosphere in the film and in the theatre during and after the projection is an essential ingredient of these kinds of films. They are films where the afterchat will once again be very important, films which will be endlessly discussed (Il conformista as Le savon by Ponge!).
However, film should not be talked about but imitated, at home, in the street, with your friends. What happens on screen (sex, love, sharp dialogue, violence and clothing) is demonstrated to you. Then you have to do it yourself, either literally or as a scenario for your imagination. Film is something physical, something tangible, something sensual. But Bertolucci’s film is an intellectualist shadow play; it is thought cinema, not felt and played cinema. Not for one moment was I under the impression that Bertolucci would ever want to or could play one of these scenes himself, let alone would have ever lived one. It is a film that lacks any pesanteur [weight], any internal tension between thought and action, construction and reality.
Il conformista is a costume drama. A costume drama and a reconstruction film like Derray’s Borsalino. It is more or less the same era, brought with the same sophistication (of course Bertolucci is less emphatically clichéd, as he delivers an “authentic reconstruction”). People are very sensitive to the past and certainly to that past. After all, it is always pleasant and more reassuring to replay once more the anxiety and commitment towards the past; one is thereby released from commitment to the now. It seems to me to be the fascination with the past that explains the appeal and success of this film.
Il conformista is based on a novel by Moravia. Now this gentleman is considered an important Italian in Italy and abroad. Watching a few Moravia adaptations suffices to realise what an inane moralising gossiper (the vilest combination imaginable!) Moravia really is. This pompous Italian version of Gide or Walschap ensnared generations of Italians in a hypocritical and unnecessary operation-vérité. Bertolucci adopted it all literally in his film. So criticism of Il conformista is at once criticism of Moravia and criticism of the entire current state of Italian culture.
The tragedy about this culture is the fact that it has irrevocably reached an impasse; that there are no possible starting points by which to get Italian culture “moving”, on the track of dialectics. This is as true at the level of ideas and information processing, as it is at the level of human relations, sexuality and family and the level of detachment from religion. As Revel wrote in his Pour l’Italie: it is a blocked society.
I have the impression, by the way, that this rigidity is particularly fascinating to intellectuals and the bourgeois. Nothing attracts people who think and speak for a job or consume thinking and speaking as a hobby as much as abstract and unsolvable (“eternal”) problems. Bertolucci’s film is like an arbitrary school assignment for an exercise in persuasion: inane talking. One can endlessly philosophise about the relationship between politics and private life, about the relationship between sexuality and mankind, about the meaning of the family for society and for the individual, about the nature of women, about good and evil. All these terms are played on and evoked by Il conformista. Bertolucci has des idées about this, just as his politics. It is striking that the fundamental function of these ideas is to keep the different terms separate, never allowing them to be integrated and never allowing the line to be continued towards existence and practice.
Image from Il conformista [The Conformist] (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)
This text originally appeared in Kunst & Cultuur, vol. 4, no. 12, 10 June 1971.
Many thanks to Reinhilde Weyns and Bart Meuleman
With the support of LUCA School of Arts, LUCA.breakoutproject