Cover of "The Conformist (Extended Editio...

IL CONFORMISTA directed by Bernardo Bertolucci (Italy, 1970)

In the 1970s, as I teenager, I conformed to my family expectations by supporting Walsall Football Club (which, for the benefit of American readers, is a ‘soccer’ team!).

Their stadium, Fellow’s Park, was walking distance from my grandmother’s home and the routine was that, every other Saturday afternoon, my mom and dad would drop me off outside the stadium. I would go to the match and then have egg and chips at Gran’s. My two elder brothers had done the same at my age.

For about three seasons I only missed a handful of home games despite the fact that Walsall were not, and still aren’t, a prestigious team. They survive in the lower divisions with moments of glory confined to the occasional good run in the FA Cup.My support was not dependant on them winning trophies but based on a loyalty that meant I stuck by them through thick and thin (mostly the latter!).

Most of my school friends claimed to be supporters of big teams like Manchester United or Arsenal but only ever watched their heroes on Match of the Day. They almost never went to actual games and I always told them that what they were doing was ‘following’ the team, not supporting them.

It’s very easy to cheer for a winning side and pledging allegiance to a soccer team can be broadly likened to maintaining a steadfast belief in a political cause.This is by way of a tenuous link to Bertolucci’s movie which is set in the 1930s.

Marcello Clerici shows no compassion as his lover is murdered.

The movie’s main character , Marcello Clerici, is played by Jean-Louis Trintigant, a French actor whose lines are dubbed into Italian. He was chosen for his looks and his ability to maintain the required appearance of dispassionate neutrality.

Clerici accepts an assignment by Benito Mussolini’s secret police to assassinate his former mentor, an anti-fascist university professor.

Although he sides with the Fascists, it becomes evident that he is only doing so because they are in the ascendant. He makes the pragmatic decision to be on the side that’s winning.

This conformity to a cause he doesn’t believe in extends to his private life. He marries an attractive, but brain dead, woman to show that he has a ‘normal’ family life; he goes through the motions of confessing his sins to a priest even though he is an atheist.

Any political philosophy is founded on an idealism that can easily tip over into extremism. If left is right, then right is wrong and never the twain shall meet. But those firmly committed to one side or another are outnumbered by those who, like Clerici, simply follow the herd instinct.

Clerici’s assignment is complicated when he has an affair with the professor’s wife. Yet even this doesn’t prompt any compassion when she is murdered along with her husband. It is others who carry out the killing as Clerici watches without displaying any emotion.

A still from ‘Il Conformista’ that shows how Bertolucci’s shots often resemble Hopper paintings.

This character’s fickleness and opportunism is revealed by the fact that, as soon as Mussolini’s dictatorship falls, he is the first in line to point the finger at those who were instrumental in his rise.

In scenes which resemble the soulless urban landscapes of Edward Hopper’s painting, Clerici’s refined instinct for self preservation leaves him isolated and directionless.

With a strong sense of atmosphere and menace, this is the Italian director’s finest work and its message is one that, sadly, is relevant to any age.

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