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Literature / The Conformist

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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 (1969). Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci with cinematography by Vittorio Storaro.

The book contains examples of:

  • 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.
  • "Everybody Dies" Ending: 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.
  • 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.
  • The Generic Guy: Marcello tries very hard to be this, it's right there in the title.
  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • Pretty Boy: In his teenage and adult years, several comments are made about Marcello's good looks and feminine appearance.
  • 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.
  • 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: Marcello is not a hero or even a decent person by any stretch of the imagination.

The film contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: Marcello is now present during the Quadris' assassination, though he remains a passive observer. In the film's epilogue, the encounter with Lino occurs much differently, with the latter not recognizing Marcello after all these years. Marcello tells Lino and his friend Italo off for effectively destroying his life, and saunters off into the night; alone.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Marcello and Anna are less caustic and manipulative than their book counterparts. Marcello, the still cold and ruthless, is not entirely devoid empathy unlike his book counterpart, and is far less sociopathic.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Lina Quadri becomes Anna, possibly to avoid confusion with the character of Lino
  • Adaptational Sexuality: In the novel, Giulia expressly rejects Lina's advances toward her. The film, while nothing ever really comes of the latter's attempted seduction, there's clearly more unrequited feelings between the two that evidently go unresolved.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Lino, though still a pedophile, is noticeably less conflicted about his actions than his book counterpart, who tried at least once to tell Marcello off and framed his shooting as a kind of attempted suicide.
  • 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.
  • Canon Foreigner: Italo, Marcello's blind friend and radio announcer.
  • Dance of Romance: Marcello's wife Giulia and Quadri's wife Anna.
  • Decomposite Character: The character Agent Orlando is split into Manganiello, a colleague of Marcello who tails him and eventually leads the assassination of the Quadris, and Raoul, a contact based in a brothel who gives Marcello his assignment. The former ultimately has a more prominent role in the story than his book counterpart.
  • Gender Flip: Marcello and Giulia's daughter becomes a son.
  • Girl on Girl Is Hot: Nothing graphic to be sure, but why else would everyone in the dance hall be staring at Anna and Giulia?
  • In Medias Res: The majority of the film takes place during a series of extended flashbacks as Marcello and Manganiello pursue Quadri into the mountains.
  • Meaningful Name: Agent Manganello is named after the bludgeon that became a symbol of the Blackshirts used to fight the opposition.
  • Mythology Gag: Giulia's suggestion of a sexual tryst in the woods is a nod to the novel's original ending.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The film streamlines the novel's different plotlines and characters, cutting things like the extended prologue depicting Marcello's unhappy childhood and his father's slow decent into madness, his multiple encounters with Lino the Chauffer, as well as several minor characters and plot points, while keeping the novel's themes and complex character interactions intact. Most notably, the film added an In Medias Res framing device to help tie the different plot threads together, and altered much of the third act, including the ending.
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out: When Marcello asks the operator to connect him with Professor Quadri, the telephone number he gives is the (one-time) telephone number of Bernardo Bertolucci's idol Jean-Luc Godard. When Quadri answers the phone, Clerici recalls one of his lectures in which Quadri said "The time for reflection is over. Now is the time for action." This is the opening line in Godard's film Le Petit Soldat (1963).
  • 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.