Tijdschrift voor kunst en cultuur

Facing or Faking Fascism? How Fascism is Portrayed in Bertolucci’s Il Conformista

Melle van Maanen

*Introduction Lecture for Fascist Film Night: Il Conformista (1970) / Simulacrum X Movietheater ‘de Uitkijk’, Amsterdam

When Bernardo Bertolucci’s Il Conformista premiered in the end of October 1970, the weather in Rome — where the film will start — would still be much to warm and pleasant for what was going to be portrayed. The nebulous, cold and misty weather tonight here in Amsterdam is much more suited for the film. I believe that as we enter the comfortable red velvet of cinema theatre’s with their nostalgic art-deco interiors, the genre of film can enable us to open-up a window in which we can reflect upon ourselves today.

Viewing Il Conformista through the eyes of the present, we will certainly feel alienated by the Fascist society depicted here: full of masculinity, authority, hierarchy and gender relations that feel totally backward. This feeling will tell us that we live in a different world than Marcello Clerici, the main character — the conformist from Alberto Moravia’s 1951 novel. But we have to be careful. We will easily react to the film as if the past it depicts is a past that we have left behind, a past that is not contemporary anymore and that has no life in the future. Although occurring in different forms, the politics of today’s world is reminding us of fascism’s come back — as media and historians stress alike. Yet, before going into the present-day fascist-like tendencies, I will formulate a brief history of Italy’s postwar period that will hopefully enrich the  understanding of  Il Conformista and its contemporary importance.

Between the Memory and History of Italian Fascism

As mentioned before, Bertolucci’s Il Conformista depicts images of an Italian Fascist society that can be interpreted as very patriarchic, masculine and conservative. The strong focus on these markers was in fact a quite paradigmatic way of dealing with this controversial part of Italy’s past. Especially the communist left historically preferred to see it as such, creating a narrative in which the Italians were victims of Fascism.[1] But, in an Italy that presented itself with strong anti-fascist sentiments, this narrative also became a way to create a sense of distance from the Fascist ‘black page’ of history. People on the left generally believed that the Italian Resistance — naturally consisting of socialists and communists in this narrative — had purged the country of Fascism and Mussolini and that it had resisted the Nazi-occupation with great heroism. A perfect example of this is shown in Bertolucci’s later film Novecento (1976), where we witness the rise and fall of the Fascist regime. The sentiments in this film follow a very rigid distinction of “good” eventually conquering and bringing down “evil”. This simplified narrative originated because of the population’s fatigue of political struggles, the extreme violence of the Second World War and the difficulty of coping with a by-stander role in the emergence of Fascism. In Italy, as across most of Europe, this narrative on the past made for an easily digestible and soothing way of dealing with the complicity in the recent barbarism on the ‘Dark Continent’.[2]

As demonstrated by Il Conformista, but more explicit by Novecento — films that were seen by a large audience — this narrative was widely disseminated on many levels of Italian culture. The 1970’s Italian audience would have felt the distance between this evil Fascist state that is portrayed in Il Conformista and their own period. What has to be taken into account is that Italy was dealing with its post-May 1968 legacy. The spirit of the student revolts in Paris had all but skipped Italy, and especially in Rome they were given an almost mythical status.[3] Expressions calling out for the democratization of politics and institutions, while fighting against authoritarianism that originated in 1968, were especially directed towards the upper-class of the generation that had experienced the events of the Second World War. This generation in Europe was in the eyes of Bertolucci’s generation complicit to the rise of totalitarianism; the Italian bourgeoisie laying down the stepping stones for the Fascist regime. Bertolucci’s generation looked back on their Fascist past as something that had not left the present. Hence, they addressed this period as an unfinished one: Italy would maintain a phony democracy, with the Fascist state structures left intact and the bureaucrats and officials still in place. Italy had remained, through their eyes, in essence, Fascist. Bertolucci stated in an 1971 interview that: “My own father was anti-fascist, but obviously I feel that the whole bourgeoisie is my father. And Fascism was invented by the petit bourgeois.”[4]

These views came to change after a controversy and fierce public debate not around a film, but around a book: Intervista sul fascismo of historian Renzo De Felice, published in 1975. Dealing with the popularity of Mussolini’s Fascist movement and that of Mussolini himself, the responses to De Felice’s book were ferocious. He was accused of being a Neo-Fascist and of rehabilitating fascism, and purposedly trivialized the atrocities of the regime. Another film director, Ettore Scola, must have been impressed by the debate that had erupted: the wide-spread popularity of fascism is tenderly portrayed in his Una Giornata Particolare (1977). Here, Sophia Loren plays Antonietta: an obedient by loving house wife in 1930’s Rome. While Hitler visits the città eterna and a parade takes place for him and Mussolini, Antonietta is left at home with the chores. In her spare time, she collects images of Mussolini and places them in an album, writing down some of his masculine quotes underneath them. Bertolucci’s projection of Fascism, and that of his generation, thus looks rather ill-informed if shed in this light: in reality Fascism enjoyed much popularity, and the conception of Italians solely being the victims of it’s conservative and authoritative state does not seem to hold. On the other hand, the opening of the debate in the first place was partially due to Il Coformista itself, as it was one of the first films that even dared to show this fascist part of Italian history. When the dust settled, Italian historians indeed became more and more aware of the complicated nature of the origins of Fascism and its relation to their present Italian society. A consenso started to form that blamed the rise of fascism not exclusively on the petit bourgeoisie and Mussolini, as long had been the fashion.

The 1970’s saw a simultaneous decline of support for the Partito Communista Italiano, the Partito Socialista Italiano and the Democrazia Cristiana. Although these groups were the main upholders of the simplified narrative that came to be criticized in the historic debate, they were nonetheless also the groups who confronted the fascist past, which could not be said for the rest of society. Due to their loss of popularity — which had everything to do with the problematic international developments of Communism — the result was not a society that was aware of its Fascist past, but an Italy that had “forgotten” and even on occasion actively erased the memory of Italian fascism. A blanc page in national history was the result, leaving only vague traces in the archive.

Adding to this tragedy, the 1980’s and 1990’s revealed that a large part of Italian society was again — or perhaps it always was — susceptible to right-wing populism and fascist ideas of an authoritarian leader. Not even the knowledge of the so-called Bunga-Bunga parties, that will most certainly feature in Paolo Sorrentino’s coming film, could harm the image of Silvio Berlusconi. Quite the contrary. Scandals nowadays seem to fuel instead of dwindle the popularity of politicians and corporate figures. These mostly masculine individuals give us a feeling of power and control over our own lives, while subverting political correctness. With “Berlusconi-land” established at the end of the millennium, the fascist period was re-evaluated as an important modernizing period for Italy. Mussolini’s reign became to be perceived as humane since “nobody got killed” and because “dissidents were sent on holiday”. From this perspective, Berlusconi could be seen as an illuminating character for what is understood today as a new kind of fascism, namely “Trumpism”. The rise of these corporate figures to the stage of politics echoes something Michel Foucault once wrote, that ‘fascism [is] in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us’.[5]

Il Conformista:

Important theme’s that runs through Il Conformista are authority, masculinity and sexuality. The film thereby sheds light in how the personal realm is perpetrated by Fascist society. This is demonstrated through the behavior of the main character, Marcello Clerici, following certain aspects that can be linked to the ideology of Fascism. For this purpose it is illuminating to look at what Mussolini has written, or more correctly, what he co-authored with Giovanni Gentile — the main ideologist of Italian Fascism. Excerpts in their Foundations and Doctrine of Fascism (1932) make clear to some extend what the role the individual had to be in relation to the state. In the film Marcello attempts to embody the doctrine, something he does almost analogously. The doctrine states that:

         ‘Fascism wants man to be manfully aware of the difficulties facing him and ready to confront them head on. It conceives of life as a struggle in which man is called upon to conquer for himself a truly worthy place, first of all by fashioning himself into the instrument required for achieving victory.’ […] ‘Fascism aims to refashion not only the forms of life but also their content: man, his character, his faith. To this end it champions discipline and authority; authority that infuses the soul and rules with undisputed sway. Accordingly, its chosen emblem is the lictor’s fasces: symbol of unity, strength, and justice.’ […] ‘Anti-individualistic, the fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the state. It affirms the value of the individual only insofar his interest coincide with those of the state, which stands for the conscience and the universal will of man in history.’ […] ‘Liberalism denied the state the name of the individual; fascism reasserts the sate as the true reality of the individual.’[6]

Following the ideas in the doctrine, Il Conformista demonstrates how Fascism structures personal behavior. Hereby sexuality becomes perpetrated as well. In Il Conformista, sexuality is not redeeming passion or the fulfillment of love. Rather it is an exercise in normalizing oneself, an exercise in which tensions of guild run underneath this surface of perfection — beautifully executed by the French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant. In a frustrated performance, Marcello’s whole body is conforming to the Italian fascist ideology, and he becomes their instrument for his wish of la normalità — normalcy. Marcello is namely dealing with a child-hood trauma, and tries to escape his past that makes him feel like an outcast. Telling is how Marcello is mimicking the perfect geometry which is seen in the stage of the film: the monumental rational architecture of the Esposizione Universale di Roma (E.U.R.): a Fascist urban project and stone document to the idea of a culto delle romanità. Doing so Marcello embodies the regime’s desires for masculinity, discipline and order. He wants his public image to be normalized within the social boundaries set by the state, just as the Fascist ideology prescribes in the doctrine. Marcello is moreover struggling with his closet homosexuality, that was by the regime as pathologic, as a sickness, and this tragically makes his performance come at the cost of a repression towards himself.

This is precisely why he fails the assignment that is given to him by the regime: to assassinate a former, anti-fascist professor of his who is currently living in Paris. Il Conformista is set both in Italy and in Paris, ‘the city of freedom’ and off course, that of the 1968 student riots. It is only when the film portrays Paris that light and shadow in the film are able to merge. Color scheme’s also change dramatically. This tool of light and color symbolizes the freedom of Paris compered to the rigid rule Italy was experiencing under Mussolini. Paris represented freedom in its purest form with a presumed strong democracy. Naturally, we have to see that Bertolucci was extremely fond of Paris, being endowed with the spirit of the May ’68 student riots that took place there. It is only at the end of the film that we see colors becoming more sober and sinister and that light becomes less capable of fusing with shadow in the scenes set in Italy — predicting the lurking evil. This is the imprint left by the director of cinematography, Vittorio Storaro. Storaro also shot Bertolluci’s Last Tango in Paris and Novecento, as well as the celebrated Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola. Storaro is, as he puts it, “writing with light”. In the cinematography of Il Conformista we see both natural light and artificial light constantly in opposition, as if a battle exists between the two. It presents a conflict of night and day, shadow and light, technology versus energy.[7] In the parts shot in Italy, the light never seem to reach the shadows: sharp lighting is contrasted with sharp shadows. This makes cinematography recount the narrative that follows the sharp distinction of “good” and “evil” that also runs through the entire film, as explained in the first section. Cinematography therefore becomes a literature of light, beautifully echoing as well as amplifying the moral message of  Il Conformista.

Past Imperfect

What I have tried to convey in this essay is that we not only live in a different time than Marcello, we also live in a different time than Bertolucci. Although today ‘fascism’ is still an easy label to swiftly demonize political opponents — something that has been inherited from Bertolucci’s generation — I think it should instead open up a discussion on how the past is always swallowing the present, how it is a past that haunts our lives today. When the tide turns for Fascism in Italy, Marcello tries to wipe out his traces of collaborating with the regime, again conforming himself. Here, Bertolucci seems to use Marcello to convey a message: Italian society had tried to wipe out its traces of being on “the wrong side of history”. Marcello is however still haunted by his personal history: a childhood trauma, and his sexual identity. Erasing the past is useless, the film seems to say. Although attempts to reduce the past to oblivion or to reshape it for political purposes are a recurring human phenomenon, they can be a harmful endeavor. Denial and repression often seem to lead to self-degradation and political division, something not only the Italian case shows. We cannot change the past, but we can most certainly take responsibility for it by engaging with it in the present.


[1] Florenza, Rosario. (2012). ‘Sacrificial Memory and Political Legitimacy in Postwar Italy: Reliving and World War II’ in: History and Memory 24:2. Indiana University, p. 74.

[2] Mazower, Mark. (1998). Dark Continent: Europes Twentieth Century. Pinguin: New York.

[3] The ‘battiglia di Valle Giulia’ on March 1968 of the students of the Sapienza University with the police is one famous example.

[4] Rigoletto, Sergio. (2012). ‘Contesting National Memory: Masculine Dilemma’s and Oedipal Scenarios in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Strategia del ragno and Il Conformista’ in: Italian Studies 67:1, p. 121.

[5] Foucault. Michel. (1983). ‘Preface’ to: Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. xiii.

[6] Mussolini, Benito and Giovanni Gentile. (1932). ‘Foundations and Doctrine of Fascism’ in: Schnapp, Jeffrey T. (2000). A Primer of Italian Fascism. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, p.46-49.

[7] Schaefer, Dennis and Larry Salvato. (1984). ‘Vittorio Storaro’ in: Masters of Light: conversations with contemporary cinematographers. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 219.