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

Manchester By the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016) “A Simphony.”

 

Manchester By the Sea is a masterpiece of modern American cinema. A cynic would say that a razor blade should distributed alongside the DVD version of the film, just like one music critic suggested regarding Leonard Cohen’s album Songs of Love and Hate. In that kind of reasoning there is a misunderstanding of the power of the melancholic experience when it is shown in art. Just the opposite, the melancholy as it is presented could be soothing to the viewer who experiences the feelings of sadness or loss. This film has the quality of a novel, although of a novel that works better on screen. Kenneth Lonergan uses the means of cinematic language, primarily montage, in an admiring manner; Jennifer Lame, the film editor deserves the praise.

The film draws its strength from the power of association, Lee’s (Casey Affleck) recollections are juxtaposed to the ongoing narrative. The memories and the present form a line of intimate connection, at times blending together and resulting in an emotional outburst. Film theorist André Bazin would call this kind of montage “expressionist”, not in terms of an artistic movement, but the expressive impact this kind of juxtaposition creates on the viewer, and in terms of the cinematic language. The juxtapositions between shots of falling snow and gray sea which is at the same time calming and treacherous. It is indicative that the film starts with a recollection, or rather, with a scene from the past. A joyous fishing trip on a boat, during which Lee, Joe and the latter’s young son Patrick joke about sharks in the sea.

This happy memory is followed by the scenes from Lee’s everyday life. He works as a janitor, does the plumming and engages in bar fights. He is withdrawn, his face shows resignation and melancholy. His brother Joe dies because of heart problems and the scene in the hospital is another example of Lee’s anger-in-sorrow and a recollection involving a caring and humorus doctor and Patrick’s mother is shown. There is a certain antithesis between the surrounding people who show care and patience, and on the other side, Lee’s behaviour and Patrick’s mother’s state of mind. Lee shows care as well, but as the movie focuses mostly on him, we see the “insides” of someone in great grief and filled with anger, in contrast to the others’ external image which seems harmonious. Lee seems to be a pariah of a kind, since the hockey coach speaks of “the story about him” and when Lee asks his acquintance about a job, the man’s wife says that “he will not come here anymore”. Lee does not seem to care about the external image he projects on people, which is something most people do almost instinctively.

The matter of guardianship over Patrick is posed when Joe’s will is read, and as we find out, Joe appointed Lee to be the guardian and made the necessary financial arrangements. Lee reluctantly accepts it and in one of the most powerful scenes of modern American cinema, the recollections involving the death of Lee’s daughters are shown. After partying with his friends in the basement, he watched TV and realized that there are no beers left. So he put some logs into the fire and went to the store to buy beer. Halfway to the store, he wondered if he closed the door of the fireplace, but continued walking nevertheless. He did not, and when he returned, the house was on fire, the children were left inside, and his wife Randi was found and saved by the firemen. The power of this scene rests in the meticulous editing, the associative power of his brother’s wish to take care of his son, and Lee’s guilt and sense of incapacity since his neglect caused the death of his children. The baroque composition Adagio per Archi E Organo In Sol minore, composed by Albinoni, plays throughout the scene creating a powerful impact of majestic, tragic sadness. The music, in its grandeur, almost absorbs the scene, yet the scene’s emotional impact is even stronger.

 

Patrick does not want his father to be “in the freezer”, since he cannot be buried immediately due to nature of the ground in winter. He has a panic attack when he sees frozen food in the refrigerator. Patrick’s relationship with Lee is interesting since they have a strong bond, but due to the tragic circumstances they are both withdrawn and a lot is left unsaid. They argue over everyday life of a teenager, but beneath all their arguments there is unspoken grief. It seems that they have made a pact involving dealing with grief privately, without depending on each other.

The everyday life Patrick and Lee experience together shows the tensions, the struggles and gives the events which unfold in the film a sense of everydayness which is constantly interrupted by feelings that dwell inside them. When the guardianship comes to a close after Joe’s friend decides to adopt Patrick, the latter decides to eat an ice cream, which symbolically conveys his acceptance of his father’s death. Lee wanting to leave Manchester for Boston as soon as possible, shows that he feels suffocated in the place where his children died, and the culmination of that occurs when he meets his ex-wife. They both burst in tears, unable to speak, their words overlap and they stutter in pain.

 

 

Vigorous line:

Can’t you see we are burning?

Lee’s daughter [in a dream]

 

In the scene we are about to analyze briefly we see Lee pouring the sauce in a pan while the basketball game is on TV. He falls asleep, hears his daughter calling him “Daddy” and telling him “Can’t you see we are burning?”. He replies: “No honey. You are not burning.” He wakes up and the room is in smoke, the sauce in the pan is burning. This brief scene is abundant in symbolism. Earlier in the film, as we see one of Lee’s memories, he jokingly says to his baby daughter that if he didn’t marry his wife, his kids wouldn’t exist and he could watch the game “in peace”. In the light of what happened, this came true, and his earlier words have an ominous quality. In the end, he is watching the game alone, but not in peace.

Sigmund Freud opens the last chapter of his Interpretation of Dreams with a “dream suspended around the most anguishing mystery”, as Jacques Lacan says. The mistery links the father to his dead son nearby. “As he is falling asleep, the father sees rise up before him the image of his son, who says to him, Father, can’t you see I’m burning?. In fact, the son really is burning, in the next room.” Lacan writes the following about this dream: “it is precisely reality which, incompletely transferred seems here to be shaking the dreamer from his sleep”. According to Lacan, father’s son is burning with “the weight of the sins of his father” and he connects it to the myth of Hamlet and the ghost of his father. “Where does Hamlet’s ghost emerge from, if not from the place from which he denounces his brother for suprising him and cutting him off in the full flower of his sins. And far from providing Hamlet with the prohibitions of the Law that would allow his desire to survive, this too ideal father is constantly being doubted.”

The similarity betwee Lee’s daughter’s words in his dream, and the son’s words in the dream Freud writes about is striking. The only difference is that Lee’s daughter talks in plural and is of the opposite sex. It is possible that Lonergan’s inspiration for this scene comes from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, but the obvious and important difference must be taken into account. Lee has this dream months after his daughters have died, yet the similar structure of a dream can be discerned. “The weight of the sin” of her father is why Lee’s daughter is burning in Lee’s dream and it must be noted that her statement is posed as a question: “Father, can’t you see…”.

Lee’s daughter’s words in the dream can be understood as a constant doubt of “this too ideal father”. This structure of the unconscious (understood by Lacan as fundamentally associated with language) continues to live in Lee and his sin continues to be a burden to him as well. In the dream he hears his daugther’s doubt and the legacy he left to his daughter. His sin was, to put it bluntly, not caring enough. He could have returned after pondering if he had left the door of the fireplace opened or closed, but he kept walking to the store. This drunken decision at the crossroads had tragic consequences and left him scarred for life. The brilliance of Manchester By the Sea is turning the image of the scar into blossom of art.

 

References:

Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, W.W. Norton & Company, London, 1998