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.

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.


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?


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.



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

Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010) “Path to Completion”


Title card: The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952. Doctors could now cure the previously incurable. By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years.

Never Let Me Go is based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro; the film describes the dystopian reality which takes place more than 50 years before the film was made. It seems to imply that the portrayed reality could occur now, as it could occur 50 years ago. It can occur at any time when the principles of civilization are rejected at the prospect of progress of “mankind” by the murderous enslavement of others. Clones are raised in a boarding school, they live a life which is both artificial (they buy stuff with tokens, simulate ordering tea in a bar) and deeply human. They are told horrific stories about the destinies of children who transgress the boundaries of the institution, most probably false. They are surrounded with lies, barriers, yet they live in accordance with their roles with almost joyful compliance. Throughout the film there are practically no warm colors, sunlight is scarce and the atmosphere is of damp sadness, accompanied by static shots of nature with dazzling beauty.

Raised to be donors for the human population, they use the term “completion” to describe their death, when they cannot donate more organs. The ironic term, since completion can be used to describe the completion of a spiritual path, and the establishment of harmony in the soul. The film centers around Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, a love triangle is formed. Tommy and Ruth end up together, while Kathy lives a rather solitary life in the Cottages, where they are sent before donating. They are in search for their original models, in other words, in search for who they are. Kathy browses through a pornographic magazine and Ruth sees that act as an attempt to understand sexuality. Yet, we find out that she does it because she believes that her model might be in there, since she posseses strong sexual craving. We can see that her act shows that she understands little about her urges, as it is difficult for her to order food and beverages in a bar. They are almost extinguished socially as they are raised for one simple function.

Someone described the government in the film as “fascist”. The term can be applied to the system of authority described in the movie if we consider Michel Foucault’s understanding of modern state and racism. In his lectures Society Must Be Defended he says: “What is racism? It is primarily a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die… It is in short a way of seperating the groups that exist within a population. It is… a way of establishing a biological type of caesura within a population that appears to be a biological domain.” In one word, racism establishes a relationship which purports: “If you want to live, the other must die”. Clones are obviously a type of species, human in every manner, biological organisms capable of producing life for others by giving their own organs. In the process, they “are completed”, they die.


This is the realm of thanatopolitics, as Foucault understands it, which forces one to die. The relationship between the clones and humans who raise them to be donors is a biopolitical relationship, the power which operates is power over life – biopower. In one word, the government in the film can be seen as fascist, since it employs the racist distinction between the ones who are entitled to live, and the others who are to forced to die because of their objective characteristics (they are clones). The film is a critique of the path modernity can take when its own fundamental values are renounced and the bleakest side of modern state prevails (Foucault believed that racism is incorporated in every modern state, to some degree). Namely, that the power over life becomes total, and forces some to die so that the majority of population can be biologically empowered, their lives prolonged and diseases eradicated. At the institution where clones grow up, Hailsham, Madame finds a few cigarettes which clones smoked. She says that they are  explicitely forbidden to smoke. Their organisms are of essential value and power which operates over them is the type of power which maximizes the vital functions of their biological organisms.

Utilitarian moral theory emphasized that it is  ethical to maximize total happiness while minimizing total pain. To save lives of many, it is ethical to let some die, since, in that case, total happiness is greater than if you let many die. Utilitarians were often of liberal orientation, which holds the human life sacred, yet there is a tension between these principles and the utilitarian ones which emphasize the importance of happiness of as many people as possible. The famous trolley problem implies an ethical choice which gives an agent a choice between causing one death and saving five lives, or letting five people die, but not causing the  death of anybody. According to the surveys, most Americans would choose causing one death and saving five lives. In the film the offical in the institution of Hailsham, Miss Emily, says: “Hailsham was the last place to consider the ethics of donation. You have to understand – cancer used to kill almost everyone. Now it kills no one at all… You see – it’s not an ethical issue – it’s just about the way we are. If you ask people to return to darkness, the days of lung cancer and breast cancer and motor neurone disease… they simply say no. Do you understand?” In one word, Miss Emily presents the problem as if there is no ethical question at all. It is who we humans are, prepared to sacrifice some individuals to escape death and suffering.


Vigorous line:

We didn’t have the Gallery in order to look into your souls. We had the Gallery in order to see if you had souls at all.

Miss Emily

Tommy hears that a couple who is truly in love can get a deferral and spend a few more years together. This seems to be a desperate illusion which celebrates romantic love to the extent that it produces the opportunity to live, when life is denied. He comes up with a rather creative idea that the Gallery, in which the artworks they made as children are stored, exists because the administration needs proof that the couple is in love. This idea is shattered and along with it the notion that “love conquers all”. Tommy succumbs to despair. The administration’s endeavour to see if they had any souls is interesting. Wouldn’t it be easier to raise clones so they can give organs, if one thinks that they are soulless?Maybe the intention was to find out that they are. In this case, creating art is a way of examining one’s authenticity, in other words, humanity. In the end, Kathy ponders: “I remind I was lucky to have had any time with him at all. What I’m not sure about is if our lives have been so different from the lives of the people we save. We all complete. Maybe none of us really understand what we’ve lived through, or feel we’ve had enough time.”

Kathy’s ruminations equate the clone’s destiny with the destiny of men – “we all complete”. What’s given to the clones is an authentic attitude toward their death. Their strong bonds shatter like glass in the storm, the angst makes them even more alive. Left with memories, they cherish them with care, knowing that their own end approaches. They have a strong sense of purpose, especially Kathy, who nurtures her kind while they slowly fade away with less and less strength in them. The clones are sacrificial lambs, but the ones which nurture authentic sensitivity, the sense of duty and the need for forgiveness, as we can see in Ruth’s case. They seem to be the answer to the questions about our own existence, most particularly our relationship to the finite nature of our lives.


Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, Picador, New York, 2003