By Andrew McGivern (Los Angeles, California)
Bertolucci’s Big Stretch
With a fascinating premise, the written story of The Conformist presented a wonderful opportunity for an in-depth hypothetical character study, and the effects of the Fascist era on that character. On the translation to the silver screen, however, writer/director Bernardo Bertolucci drops the ball while overreaching for the basket, and his interpretation does not score.
Often hailed as Bertolucci’s masterpiece, The Conformist has none of the subtle power of brilliant cinematic storytelling displayed in Cinema Paradiso. It includes no moving, sweeping character arcs like those manifested in Mediterraneo, nor does it exhibit the strong earnest historical fiction of Rome, Open City. Instead, it relies on non-linear storytelling to indirectly convey to the audience what is often a nonsensical experience, leaving some viewers feeling needlessly disorientated, unfulfilled, and cheated from its dispensable disunity.
Yet, it is not difficult to understand why there are so many positive reviews for The Conformist. It is a critic’s dream; filled with low hanging fruit, easy to grab and twist to match the common, redundant liberal themes that get the movie-going mainstream moving so quickly. The film panders to the masses looking for something to mean anything, losing the art of understatement, along with transient brevity. It drifts over the course of its 106-minute runtime into a hard-boiled shell as hollow as the hero of the story, and shallow as the themes running throughout its meandering plots.
It would be gratuitous to point out the multiple positive, mostly technical, aspects of The Conformist, as so many have already exaggeratingly done so. More important to the study of this film are the fundamental flaws that hang like a noose around what could have been a much more fantastic cinematic telling of the original 1951 novel.
Not everyone in the audience will have trouble following the non-linear timeline, but it often feels as if Bertolucci’s postproduction decision to tell his version of the story in this relatively unique fashion may have been to distract the viewers from the lack of depth to which he explores the copious themes. The old adage of “too much of a good thing” – meaning an excess of anything can often bring harm – is in play here; the film is a perfect example of how to over-symbolize, and therefore lose meaning.
The ideas and themes from the screenplay are presented in a way as conforming to various views as they are nonconforming to those that they aim to preach, as if the filmmaker simply could not make up his mind as to what he should truly emphasize, explore, and seek to convey. Instead, he chose not to choose, and therefore threw up everything with equal emphasis, creating a confusing jumble of excellent ideas with absolutely no real follow-through on any of them.
Dumbfoundingly, when the time does come for symbolism to make its run to the basket, such as the recounting of the Allegory of the Cave, Bertolucci falls short once again. To verbally recall verbatim the Allegory through a conversation between two characters is a filmmaking sin. Plato’s symbolic story has been well known for centuries, yet the audience was needlessly taken by hand through his cave. This was an incredible opportunity to present an intriguing double entendre to the viewer, an allegory within an allegory, and yet Bertolucci lazily, unforgivably chooses to use dialogue to convey it.
Because of Bertolucci’s writing/directing choices, an articulate viewer may find a nagging sense of the filmmaker’s lack of forethought and care in the making of this film. To a critical eye it can seem like a string of yarn that has frayed into too many threads, each stretching far too thin in weak attempts to explore multiple dis-unified, un-clarified, uninspired and often seemingly random themes. To have strangeness for strangeness’s sake is not the mark of a master filmmaker.
There needs to be reason given for plot points that hold dangerous potential to unhinge viewer interpretation of the story; for example, murky clues that Marcello may be imagining certain events in the movie. For this type of imagery to exist, there needs to be a reason, and a consequence, yet none are made clear. It is left instead a mystery on purpose; a cheap thrill that leaves the viewer empty in the end. Now, if that was the purpose, to help viewers understand a protagonist’s feelings of emptiness – that may be an acceptable reason to include those aspects of story, but this is not the case. Another example is the flashback of Marcello’s childhood that culminates in the Lino abuse scenario.
It begins with schoolyard bullying; in the novel, it was made clear that the protagonist was effeminate, and that this was the reason for getting picked on. In the film, the reason for young Marcello’s troubles are (as is done with the dream/imagination clues) left a mystery – and the adult Marcello does not appear effeminate in the least. In fact, for the majority of the movie, he maintains the image of the typical male hero archetype, despite very subtle flaws. This is at odds with accurately portraying the themes within the story, and a failure by the filmmaker to properly translate them to the screen.
Bertolucci did not make a bad movie in The Conformist, but he did miss the opportunity to make great a story that had potential to transcend the times, and if not for the distractions of the filmmaker’s superfluous bag of tricks, be even more relevant in today’s hyper-sexual culture than ever before. For a film to be acceptable to a trained eye, there must be some method to the madness. Bertolucci is breaking multiple cardinal storytelling rules by having none, and in so doing, his version of The Conformist dissolves into a makeshift jack of all trades, and a master of none.