Literature / The Conformist

Or in the original Italian, Il Conformista. A 1951 political thriller written by Alberto Moravia, and the 1970 film of the same name.

Set during the era of Benito Mussolini's dictatorship in Italy before World War II, Marcello Clerici has spent his life doing everything he can to conform. He marries a pretty, rich girl named Giulia. Unknown to his new wife, Marcello is working for the fascist Secret Police and is sent on an assignment to kill an outspoken, anti-fascist intellectual now living in France. Marcello is conflicted when he finds out the target he is being sent to kill is his friend and former college professor, Professor Quadri. Marcello travels with Giulia to Paris for their honeymoon (and to take care of that pesky assassination) but there is another snag in his plan. Marcello falls in love with his target's beautiful wife, Lina (named Anna in the film). Lina knows Marcello is with the secret police but things are further complicated when she develops feelings for his wife.

The novel was directly inspired by Moravia's experience of Fascist Italy. His own cousins were murdered by the secret police in 1937 for their part in the founding of an anti-fascist organisation, and he himself was blacklisted both on this account and for his Jewish ancestry.

The film is notable for its beautiful cinematography, and forms the second half of the "Kinky Fascist" art-house double feature with Visconti's The Damned. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci with cinematography by Vittorio Storaro.

The book contains examples of:

  • Bishōnen: In his teenage and adult years, several comments are made about Marcello's good looks and feminine appearance.
  • Bi the Way: Lina/Anna
  • Brooding Boy, Gentle Girl: Marcello and Giulia, at least on the surface. It turns out Giulia has plenty of scars of her own, and ultimately, though Marcello shows signs of improvement near the end of the book, he largely considers his marriage to merely be part of his facade.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Marcello grows up neglected and physically abused by his parents and bullied by his schoolmates, and is sexually assaulted by Lino at the age of 13. Giulia was continually raped by her "Uncle", 60-year-old lawyer Perpuzzio, from the age of 15.
  • Fascist Italy
  • Fascist Protagonist
  • Freudian Excuse: Marcello's extreme desire to be normal stems from a childhood incident where he had homosexual encounter with a pedophilic chauffuer and then accidentally shot and killed him. In the end we find out the man is actually still alive, meaning all that Marcello has done in his life to try and make up for the incident was for nothing.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Not for the right reasons
  • Hollywood Atheist: Marcello
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Marcello, throughout the story. However, considering the time he's living in, it backfires spectacularly, and the book as a whole denounces the sheep-like abandonment of ideals which made fascism possible.
  • Incompatible Orientation: Lina's infatuation with the heterosexual Giulia.
  • Just Following Orders: Near the end of the novel, Orlando wonders how he and Marcello will explain their role in the Fascist government. Even Marcello finds his own answer clichéd.
  • Kill 'em All: The assassination is successful, Lina dies attempting to save Quadri, and all the Clericis are killed by a spitfire during their escape from Rome in the epilogue.
  • Lack of Empathy: Marcello throughout the novel. In particular, when Giulia reveals her abuse by Perpuzzio, he knows he should feel upset for her, but he simply can't find the feeling.
  • Love Triangle: Marcello is in love with Lina, who is in love with Giulia, who is in love with Marcello, who is . . . er . . .
  • Meaningful Name: Lina, the female counterpart of Lino (in more ways than one).
  • Mistaken for Gay: Marcello's encounter with the English man.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Giulia acts like a ditz, but she's actually quite clever.
  • Pedophile Priest: Lino is a defrocked priest.
  • Rape as Backstory: Lino's attempted rape of Marcello. Also Giulia, who was sexually abused as a teenager by a friend of the family, Perpuzzio.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: Lino's obituary turns out to have been an error, as an astounded Marcello discovers when he chances upon Lino near the end of the book.
  • Pretty Boy: Marcello
  • Secret Police: Naturally.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Mussolini and the fascist Italian government are overthrown in 1943 shortly after the events of the movie. The chauffuer is alive, Marcello did not kill him when he was a child. And finally, during their escape from Rome, Giulia and his daughter are killed by a spitfire. The book ends with Marcello staring at his dead family, hearing the approach of the plane.
  • The Sociopath: Heavily implied if not stated outright. Marcello is manipulative, devoid of empathy, and was quite fond of killing animals as a child.
  • Sugar and Ice Personality: Lina, depending on whether she's interacting with Giulia or Marcello.
  • Taking the Bullet: Lina takes three for Quadri.
  • Villain Protagonist

The film contains examples of:

  • All Gays Are Pedophiles: Implied by the film (but not the book), considering that the pederast Lino is seen flirting with an adult man. In the book, his attentions are clearly directed only at children.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Marcello may or may not be a repressed homosexual. At any rate, he's far more attracted to the masculine-acting Anna than to his more feminine wife.
  • Dance of Romance: Marcello's wife Giulia and Quadri's wife Anna.
  • Fake Nationality: The eponymous conformist Marcello is played, ironically, by Frenchman Jean-Louis Trintignant.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Giulia's black and white striped dresses, lighting that creates black and white bars, the bars in the final shot
  • Scenery Porn: Makes Paris even more beautiful than it already is.
  • Snow Means Death For Anna and Professor Quadri
  • Spared by the Adaptation: As the final scenes of the book were not filmed, we never see the deaths of Marcello, Giulia, and their child.
  • Sympathetic Adulterer: Anna. Less so her book counterpart, Lina.