The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970) “The Psychology of Fascism”

Bernardo Bertolucci’s tour de force follows a fascist agent of the secret police whose assignment is to assassinate his former university professor. Set mostly in 1938., it doesn’t deal with broader societal aspects of the rulling regime, it is a study of a personality, Marcello’s, who willingly serves the fascist regime. When one of the fascists interviews him, he says that most people do it for money, some because of fear, and few out of conviction. What motivates Marcello to serve the fascist cause seems to be the main question which is a driving force of the film. Beautifully shot, famous for Bertolucci’s unique use of colors, for example the use of yellow in the scene on the train when his wife tells him of her former lover, symbolizing jealousy, is one of the obvious examples of Bertolucci’s delicate use of color, a stylistic feature shared with Jean-Luc Godard.

Bertolucci claimed: “The Conformist is a story about me and Godard. When I gave professor Quadri Godard’s telephone number and his adress (in the film), I was kidding. But later I said, ‘Well perhaps it has some meaning… I am Marcello and I make fascist films and I want to kill Godard who is a revolutionary, who makes revolutionary films and who was my teacher. This seems to evoke Sigmund Freud’s analysis of primitive cultures in his Totem and Taboo and the killing of the father which results in guilt and worship of he father (Freud sees the origin of religion in Oedipus complex). In other words, Bertolucci’s killing of his cinematic father in the film seems to be the result of an obsession with Godard and The Conformist is a totem dedicated to Godard himself. It is hard to believe  that Bertolucci is serious when he says that he makes fascist films, but his obsession with Godard led him to “reject” him in the most radical manner; since Godard is a Maoist, he shall call himself fascist.

The word which is pronounced most frequently in the first part of the film is normalità, normalcy, Marcello strives for the complete normalization of his life. For Marcello, to be a normal man means to be a “true fascist”. He is engaged to a petty bourgeois woman, who is, in his words, good only for bed and kitchen, becomes an active member of the rulling party. Freudian interpretation of Marcello’s personality seems to be the most obvious approach, but considering the historical moment and Marcello’s commitment to fascism, a more interesting interpretative approach is to apply Theodor Adorno’s concept of “authoritarian personality” to Marcello.

Adorno+and+the+Reproach+that+a+View+is+‘Too+Subjective_+
Theodor W. Adorno

Adorno designated nine traits of the authoritarian personality, and we will see that Marcello fits in with most of them, yet not all. The first is conventionalism, rigid adherence to conventional middle-class rules, which is present in Marcello’s personality, evident in the fact that he married a middle class woman who is “mediocre”, in his own words, in his acceptance to go to the confesssion although he is not religious etc.. The second is authoritarian submission, an uncritical attitude toward authority, which is evidently Marcello’s trait. He obeys the commands, even if they involve murder. The third is authoritarian aggression, for example an attitude: “Homosexuals are hardly better than criminals and ought to be severely punished.” This is vividly present in the words of Mangianello, Marcello’s accomplice: “Cowards, homosexuals, Jews – they’re all the same thing. If it were up to me, I’d stand them all against a wall!”

Anti-intraception is a trait which characterizes those who are antagonistic toward the subjective and imaginative, and in this respect Marcello is not authoritarian since he is educated in liberal arts, loves poetry and is well-versed in Latin; shows affinity to it. It seems that Marcello is not completely authoritarian and this may be the reason why his professor, when they meet, hopes that he will renounce fascism. Superstition and stereotypy is a trait which seems to fit Marcello’s personality due to his acceptance of fascist values. He says that “mumps, scarlet fever and German maesles” are “moral maladies”. All this shows that Bertolucci presents a highly complex character who is not like Mangianello, a fascist to the bone, but someone who will obey authority and strive to normalization, most likely due to his family background.

Power and toughness and the “preoccupation with dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension” is shown in Marcello’s character when he “wins” his former professor’s wife over, he does it by force. Destructiveness and cynicism, a view that war is a natural state of humanity is present in the fascist vocabulary which Marcello accepted, so it is safe to conclude that as a fascist, he shares this trait. Projectivity, “the projection outward of unconscious emotional impulses”, is particularly vivid at the end of the film, after the breakdown of the fascist regime, and the breakdown of Marcello’s psyche. He belives he murdered a young homosexual, with whom he had an encounter in his early youth. At the end of the film, after the collapse, he hears him speak of “Madame Butterfly”, the same words he heard him speaking earlier. He attacks him verbally and asks him where he was on the dates when the abuse and the violence ocurred and on the day when he murdered his professor in 1938. The two traumatic experiences are associated through the mechanism of transference.

Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in his seminars speaks: “Transference is the enactment of the reality of the unconscious”. He projects the murder he committed on the homosexual who assaulted him and whom he tried to murder at young age. The whole scene has the quality of a dream and the ancient architecture amplifies the feeling of the unreal. The final trait Adorno emphasizes is the preoccupation with sex, which is shown when Marcello orders Manginaello to beat his mother’s lover; he seems to be disgusted with her lifestyle. The fact which makes Adorno’s F scale so valuable is its scope of application in the contemporary times. Its application to a fictional character can hopefully sharpen our senses to the signs of the rise of authoritarianism in our own surroundings. We can conclude that Marcello shows predisposition to the authoritarian mode of thinking and his obsession with normalcy and conformism made him an easy target for the fascist regime.

Vigorous lines:

In all these years do you know what remains stamped on my memory? Your voice. ‘Imagine a large subterranean place, like a cavern. Inside are men who’ve lived there since childhood. All in chains and forced to look at the back of the cave. Behind them, in the distance, shines the light of a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners, imagine a low wall like the tiny stage of a puppet theatre.’ It was November 1928… Now try to imagine men walking past that low wall carrying statues of wood and of stone. The statues are higher than the wall… They see only the shadow fire projects on the cavern wall.

Marcello

Shadows, the reflexions of things… as you experience in Italy today.

Professor Quadri

If those prisoners were free to speak might they not call their visions reality?

Marcello

In these lines Marcello elaborates  Plato’s famous allegory of the cave. They apply it to the condition in fascist Italy. After the scene, Marcello’s shadow on the wall is seen, and then it disappears; Bertolluci toys with the idea that since the shadow is gone, Marcello now sees reality as it is. Of course, it is an illusion. Mussolini’s subjects saw the shadows of reality as they were presented by fascist ideology. It dominates all aspects of life and doesn’t leave a place for authenticity, there is only conformity. This scene is particularly nuanced since Marcello tries to win the sympathy of his former professor, but at the same time, he presents himself openly as a fascist – he raises his hand in a fascist salute while explaining the argument.

Professor Quadri doubts Marcello’s allegiance to the cause, since he does not show anti-intraception which is common for a fascist, but shows capability for philosophical insight, a moral one. This relationship is all the more interesting since professor Quadri, a man who prides himself for living in a place where freedom of thought and action is possible [in France], is ready to show trust to the self-proclaimed fascist on the account of his excellence in liberal arts. This precipitates his downfall. When Marcello drives with Mangianello to assassinate professor Quadri, he tells him: “I’ve just had a fantastic dream… I was in Switzerland. And you were taking me for an operation in a hospital because I was blind… And professor Quadri did the operation. The operation was a success and I was leaving soon with the wife and the professor. And she loved me.”

This dream is a direct reference to the discussion about Plato’s allegory of the cave. Marcello dreamed that he was blind and professor Quadri did an operation on him and he could see again. He is no longer a slave to the fascist lies and blindness. They are in Switzerland, a safe, democratic and later neutral country, with a possibility for a better life. Professor Quadri is a father figure who has the capability to lead him to the path of rightousness, yet he assassinates him. In Bertolucci’s own words, the film is a reversed catharsis, in the place of a liberation, there is continued enslavenment and in the end, collapse of the life as he knows it. It is a tragedy without the hand of fate, unless it is his unconscious which led him to forsake his individuality and be a slave to the murderous regime.

 

References:

Vera Dika, Recycled Culture in Contemporary Art and Film: The Uses of Nostalgia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003

Duckitt, J., 2015. Authoritarian Personality. In: James D. Wright (editor-in-chief), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Vol 2 Oxford: Elsevier. pp. 255–261

Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, 2015) “Fragments of Life’s Evening “

To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

We might add that this applies to the filmmakers like Paolo Sorrentino as well. Sorretino portrays the holiness of days passing and the divine in men with particular visual and stylistic eloquence in his La giovinezza (Youth). Sorrentino can be rightfully called Fellini’s heir, just like Kore-eda in Japan can be called Ozu’s heir. Being a “cinematic heir” does not mean that the following director is an emulator. It can be stated that the director manages to use central themes and cinematic style of his predecessor in an authentic manner, and develop them even further. Perhaps he never accomplishes the grandeur of his predecessor, yet he manages to evolve and adapt to the radically new environment and create admirable pieces of art.

For Fellini, life is akin to circus, it is a feast for the senses, and Sorrentino seems to take this basic assumption and develop it in a manner which is distinctly his own. For example, Fellini’s stance about Catholicism is less ambivalent than Sorrentino’s is. The celebration of the carnal and divine merge into one in Sorrentino’s La giovinezza. The Buddhist monk and Miss Universe are both an integral part of the same cosmos which celebrates life and its gracefulness.

At the beginning we see the composer Fred Ballinger (Michel Caine) browsing the magazine and pausing at the image of Miss Universe. She appears three times later in the film, symbolizing the eroticism and the voluptuousness of youth. She represents carnal Aphrodite for the aged composer and filmmaker Mick (Harvey Keitel). The Queen’s emissary comes to the hotel in the Alps in Switzerland where they reside, and asks Fred to conduct his Simple Songs for Prince Phillip’s birthday.

Fred says that he finds monarchy endearing “because it’s so vulnerable. You eliminate one person and all of a sudden… The whole world changes. Like in a marriage”. He dreams that he is surrounded with wondrous buildings with arches on the first floor (presumably of a hotel) which give light to the water around him; it is night and it imbues the water with blackness. A narrow  path is in the middle of the water, functioning as a bridge. As Fred walks across it, Miss Universe crosses paths with him and her breast touches his body as he moves by. The black water, similar to a melancholic lake, rises and he is drowned; he wakes up with a gasp.

The major part of the film takes place in the Swiss Alps, in a resort similar to the one from Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain. Mann’s novel takes place in a tuberculosis sanatorium where the cultural elite comes to in the hope of recovery. Death plays a prominent part in Mann’s novel, it is concerned with time, the nature of its passing, the narration of time itself. In The Magic Mountain, young Hans Castorp is influenced by Settembrini, who advocates democratic republicanism and Naphta who is a romantic, conservative revolutionary. Sorrentino’s La giovinezza deals less with illness, and more with the joy of life and sensuality of youth. If it deals with time, it is concerned with the shifting of perspectives of the young and of the old, the time which has already passed, with the solidness of time.

Swiss Alps

The old are confronted with the irrefutable fact that the time has passed: “It’s too late”, Fred says a few times. Sorrentino is less concerned with the passing of time in the Alps; they are a place where the time which has passed is contemplated. The film is mostly apolitical, save for the fact that the overweight Diego Maradona has a huge tatoo of Karl Marx on his back. It seems that Sorrentino jokes about the Marxists in the film, just like he does in his La grande bellezza when he puts the words communismo puro in the mouth of a middle class woman. On the other hand, we can see that in La giovinezza the residents of the resort are an elite, actors, composers, filmmakers, the rich, and Karl Marx’s tatoo seems to be a form of self-irony on the part of Sorrentino.

In a distinctively Bergmanesque scene on the massage table, Fred’s daughter Lena, while her father is next to her, tells about her and her mother’s suffering regarding Fred’s behaviour throughout life. The camera is fixed on her face in a close-up and the scene strongly resembles the scenes from Bergman’s films, Autumn Sonata for example, in which a character shares his or her suffering with a family member. Her face is calm, without expression, yet her pain can be discerned throughout the shot. Fred cared only about music, and showed little affection toward his daughter, and had “a stream of women”, hurting her mother in the process. We find out that Fred’s wife was in Venice, paralyzed, and Fred hadn’t visited her for years.

He says to her later: “Music is all I understand. Do you know why? Because you do not need words, only experience to understand it. It just is.” Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote: “The inexpressible depth of all music, by virtue of which it floats past us as a paradise quite familiar and yet eternally remote, and is so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain.” When compared to Schopenhuer’s understanding of music, we can understand Fred’s relationship with music, which “just is” and is remote from the pains of reality. The music in the film gives the scenes a drop of the divine celebrating life’s youthful passion.

 

Vigorous line:

[Mick asks the Girl screenwriter if she sees the mountain across them. She replies affirmatively and says that it looks “really close”]

This is what you see when you are young. Everything seems really close. And that’s the future. And now. And that’s what you see when you’re old. Everything seems really far away. That’s the past.

Mick

In showing his screenwriter the mountain and telling how it looks really close, and comparing it to the young age, Mick points to the change in optics when you are older, when everything seems far away. This change of view is symbolically enhanced through a spyglass. La giovenezza is not only a film about youth and old age, it is also a film about time, although not in the same way The Magic Mountain is a novel about time. This change in optics is conditioned by the passing of time, when the past seems to be far away. It is also a change in perception; the film’s title La giovenezza points to the fact that Mick and Fred are constantly trying to perceive youth, their own youth in the past. They are surrounded with young men and women; Mick has young screenwriters working for him and Fred befriends the actor Jimmy, played by Paul Dano, who was possibly casted, among other reasons, because he looks younger than his age.

The interesting thing is that the passing of time is associated with seeing. It is not the question about “feeling” young or old, it is the question of perceiving through the eye, the distance of the past and the closeness of the future (when one is young). This change of perspective is also qualitative; not only does one see less when he is older, but the view is also distorted, when the close objects are shown through a spyglass. Nevertheless, the closeness of things in youth is also an illusion, since the mountain is only perceived to be close, but in reality it is not. In La giovenezza, youth is celebrated precisely for that reason, because it can easily come to terms with illusion, while contemplation of the past is left to the older generation. In the final scene, the music brings the two worlds together, with an aesthetic tour de force.

 

 

Death In Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971) “Beauty Amidst Decay”

Luchino Visconti’s Death In Venice is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel; it follows Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), a composer who, due to ill health, comes to Venice. The film explores the encounter of true beauty amidst the decay – Venice is struck down by a plague toward the end of the film. The music present throughout the film are Gustav Mahler’s the Third and the Fifth symphonies. The main character is himself a composer, while in the novel he is a writer. This change made by Visconti is important since it highlights the musical nature of the protagonist and connects him to the romantic music we hear throghout the film; it amplifies the intensity of Gustav’s feelings, but also provides a setting which facilitates the contemplation of beauty. Gustav is infatuated with the beauty of a stunningly beautiful youth, a teenage boy.

The Nietzschean concepts of Apollonian and Dyonisian are particularly relevant to the film; the protagonist, as his friend makes a remark in the flashbacks we see in the film, sets high moral standards of perfection and restraint upon himself (the Apollonian element) and suppresses the irrational and passionate Dyonisian element. During the flashbacks, we witness the conversations of philosophical nature regarding the role of the artist and whether the artist creates from the spirit or, as his friend suggests, through the senses. Gustav’s friend despises his self control and the lack of passion for things, his sterile self-composure. The artist “feeds” himself upon the decay and sickness, his friend emphasizes, and good health is a dry thing, as well as the neglect of the passionate, sensual encounter with the world.

Genius is a divine gift. A sinful morbid flash fire of natural gifts.

 

When Gustav comes to Venice, he encounters a grotesque figure wearing make-up and later in the film he himself tries to look youthful and gets a similar make-up resembling a death mask. Upon arriving to Venice, a corrupt gondolier takes him in the direction he doesn’t want to go; this points to the fact that Aschenbach’s encounter with Tadzio is not an act of his will, as he sees him he is momentarily infatuated and cannot escape the admiration of beauty he sees.

The film conveys the appearance of beauty amongst decay, beauty degenerating into the grotesque and implicitly the degeneration of art, being either a pure form for the contemplation of beauty and the aesthetical or a sensual manifestation. Since Gustav is a composer in Visconti’s film, this may imply the decadence of music in contemporary times, a topic interestingly explored by Theodor Adorno. In other words, degeneration and decay and the possibility of encountering beauty in its purity is the main theme of the film.

Gustav says that at his father’s house he had an hourglass and that “the aperture through which the sand runs is so tiny that… that first it seems as if the level in the upper glass never changes. To our eyes, it appears that the sand runs out only… only at the end.” The  perception of timelessness during the contemplation and admiration of beauty is deeply present throghout Death In Venice.

 

Vigorous lines:

You must never smile like that. You must never smile like that at anyone. I love you.

Gustav von Aschenbach

In Plato’s dialogue thematically dedicated to eros and love, Phaedrus, Socrates says that although madness can be illness, it can bring us blessings. This form of “divine madness” is love that comes from gods Aphrodite and Eros. We can see that Gustav, after seeing Tadzio on the beach, starts composing, while we can assume that, due to his illness, he was not artistically productive before that. For Plato, the madness of love arises from seeing beauty and being reminded of true universal beauty. Gustav is vilely distressed when he does not see Tadzio and joyous when he does, he is completely obsessed with the boy; he does not engage in contact with him until the last part of the movie. Tadzio is for Gustav, and for Visconti as a creator of art, an artistic form itself, like an ancient statue that majestically shines in the sun.

Whether Gustav’s affection for Tadzio is sensual is debatable, but the impression the film leaves is that Tadzio is a manifestation of Gustav’s obsession with beauty and perfection and that that relationship is erotic in the Platonic sense of the term. If we borrow Plato’s vocabulary, Gustav is “reminded” of the universal beauty which Tadzio represents in the material form. When he touches his hair and his hand shakes, it can be compared to the child’s desire to touch statues at a museum, but knowing that it is forbidden.

 

For Gustav this is forbidden, not only because of the social conventions, but because by experiencing beauty through the senses the Platonic element of observing the earthly reflections of the idea of beauty is compromised. Tadzio’s smiling to him compromises the aesthetic experience as well, since it brings an element of the emotional and sensual.   In this moment, Gustav’s degeneration commences regarding to experiencing Tadzio as a reflection of Divine Beauty.

No, Gustav, no. Beauty belongs to the senses, only to the senses.

Alfred

In the ending scene, when Gustav is dying on the beach and observing Tadzio as he is illuminated by the Sun in the sea, blood is trickling down his forehead, the artist dies while observing sublime beauty. Symbolically it conveys the moment in which the artist  creates works of the purest aesthetic value and his decline as an artist commences. It also points to an aesthetic experience which is an everlasting benchmark for comparison with other objects of aesthetic appreceation, bordering on adolation.

When an artist reaches the zenith of his abilities, only decadence can follow, since all living things either grow or decay. Old age and decadence are contrasted with youth and purity. Gustav’s friend Alfred says to him that he has never possessed chastity since purity is a privilege of youth: “In all the world, there is no impurity so impure as old age.” The film’s title Death In Venice (Venice is often called serenissima – “the calmest”) carries an explicit allusion to sickness and decadence (the plague) which are juxtaposed to purity and beauty (Tadzio); a synthesis is formed out of oppositions. Thus, art is only possible in the realm of finality and entropy; nevertheless, when the screen freezes, the beauty is preserved.

L’Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962) “Looming Shadows of Modernity”

It is somewhat ironic that we are commemorating a total solar eclipse which occurred in the United States a week ago, with a film that can be easily interpreted through Marxist lenses. Although, since the Cold War is over, one can afford such leeway. Speaking of the Cold War, L’eclisse was filmed in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and is heavily influenced by that very experience the world had gone through. Trees in the film remind of the shape of a nuclear blast, which is very likely rooted in our collective unconscious, if we follow Jungian psychoanalysis.

The film follows Vittoria (Monica Vitti – one of the most talented Italian actresses of that era), self-confident but fragile young woman who engages in romantic escapades or long-time relationships while seeming to be reluctant to allow herself to be seriously emotionally involved. She longs for security; as we can see at the beginning of the film when she lies in a fetal position, but she also longs for freedom and is repelled by what she perceives as impediments that men bring to her life.

The first man that we can see she encounters is her adolescent amour, the man who wants to marry her, but she escapes from such a possibility and encounters a young man of materialistic nature. He sees the world through the lenses of a man who mostly deals with numbers, money to be more exact. At one moment in the film, he says that he had dinner with “seven or eight billion liras”. When he meets Vittoria, all he talks of are his cars and the money he earned. The angles from which the scenes of Vittoria and her companions are filmed imply emotional distance (we can often see their backs).

What’s even more symptomatic are the scenes of the behaviour of businessmen at the stock exchange; Antonioni dedicates a fair amount of screen time to such scenes to highlight its barbaric and crude nature. At one  moment of silence is had for a “fallen comrade”; the angle from which the scene is shot makes it similar to a religious experience at a chapel. Both romances fail, the second mostly because the tender and poetic side of Vittoria simply cannot digest Piero’s crude materialism.

Stock Exchange

 

The two themes with which Antonioni deals predominantly in this film are the alienation of modern man and the  banality of romantic love. The first theme is explored in his early neorealist films (most notably Il grido), but is elaborated upon fully in the trilogy L’Eclisse is the part of. The scenes which deal with a woman who was born in Africa symbolize the need of modern man to escape alienation through immersion into the life of “primitive” people and intimate encounter with nature. Antonioni points out that this is impossible. The Westerner sees the Africans through the lenses of modernization theories which value other cultures according to their level of industrial, economical (etc.) development.

The banality of romantic love in the bourgeoise society has an important aspect that needs to be considered. Love is no longer destructive in the manner Homer depicts it (Troy is sacked because of eros), or as later poets and authors do. The main danger, as Antonioni sees it, is that romantic love becomes a trifle, a commodity which takes boredom away.

The beautiful final shots in the film show desolate town landscapes with worried and devastated people (the nuclear threat); the shots of water represent life which is slowly fading away into the nothingness of Boudelairean spleen permeating the industrial landscapes resembling those in Antonioni’s Red Desert.

 

Vigorous line:

There are times when holding a needle and a thread, or a book, or a man – it’s all the same.

Vittoria

African Weaving

This line can be interpreted from several different angles. It presents Vittoria in a vulnerable moment of passive nihilism, but also the desire to transcend that feeling. It is important to note the symbolism of tropes she chose to say. A needle and a thread are intimately connected to the art of weaving. It is a delicate skill, but also the one which connects threads into something new, which can be beautiful and awe inspiring.

In Plato’s Statesman weaving is compared to the statestman’s role. He needs to weave divergent and analogue threads into a polity. A “book” can imply numerous things like exploring the uncharted seas, but also late-night boredom and fatigue. Associating all these tropes with the romantic relationship is intellectualy stimulating and interesting. It can inspire countless interpretations, the one that highlights the emotional state of the main character, but also her subconscious desires and imagination.

Hrvoje Galić