Bertolucci’s The Conformist and the Fascist Rage of the Boys of the American Midwest

The Conformist (1970) | Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Figure one: here’s a boy making a threat of violence. In the video he’s ruddy and round-faced, sitting in the front seat of a truck. See the almost-mustache on his lip. See the reflection in his sunglasses, his right arm extended out in front of him, hand holding a cellphone open to the front camera. Miles away, there are people protesting, this boy wants them dead. Listen as he declares: I got 50 edgy boys from small rural town boys ready wipe out some demonstrators, drips, whatever you want to call them. He puts it online at 8:15 p.m. You can mouse over, click the boy’s name, pull up his information. Here’s his hometown, his high school, same as mine. Here’s the list of our mutual friends. The album of old pictures, pictures in someone’s unfinished basement, maybe I’m in the background of one.

Recently, a lot of the seemingly normal boys I grew up with in small-town Wisconsin have been compelled to vocalize a sort of empty rage at the world. This anger is almost always accompanied by a set of symbols, politics. It’s an anger that announces—justifies—itself as the expression of victimhood, suffering. But what suffering? The boys I know are middle-class, white, got new cars when they turned 16. Systemic injustice is basically unknown to young men of the suburban American Midwest and yet in them is this feeling that they’re being slighted, left behind. And by some process this feeling turns to rage, which turns—especially now, in the year 2020—to gestures of extreme ethno-nationalism, enthusiastic support of the various agents inflicting the violence of the state, weird internet bootlicking. See the video of the boy coming into town to run people over with his car.

Figure two: here’s a scene midway through Bertolucci’s 1970 feature, The Conformist. The exchange is set up like a joke, almost. A fascist asks his friend, a blind guy, “What do you think a normal man is like?” The friend responds, “A normal man is one who turns his head to see a beautiful woman’s bottom, and finds out he isn’t the only one to turn his head. And he is glad to find people like him, his equals.” To fit in is to find delight in the camaraderie of heterosexual desire (but not necessarily in the sexual impulse itself). Normalcy, the joy taken in losing oneself in a mass of people engaged in a particular type of seeing (says the blind man).

The Conformist, based on the 1951 novel by Alberto Moravia, tells the story of Marcello Clerici, an Italian Fascist driven by an intense psychological need to fit in, to be normal. We find him at the film’s opening, awake at dawn in a Parisian hotel room. He’s lit by the flashing red light of a neon sign, awaiting instructions to assassinate his former professor, an anti-Fascist intellectual named Quadri. The call comes. Marcello covers his naked sleeping wife with a bedsheet, goes down to meet his strongman and carry out the murder. What brings Marcello here? How is a child of interwar affluence to end up like this, a member of Mussolini’s secret police, little handgun in his coat pocket?

The story is told in a number of flashbacks. At the earliest point in the chronology: a kind of castration. We can’t quite see what happens, but Marcello is a young boy in his school outfit, tormented by other children. A chauffeur pulls up in a limousine and the bullies disperse. Marcello stands, pulls up his pants. He accepts a ride in the car. The chauffeur, who says his name is Lino, asks the boy if he wants to see his pistol. He does. Lino takes the boy to his bedroom in a large, semi-abandoned house and shows him the gun, then embraces and kisses him. Marcello goes along with it for a moment before standing and shooting Lino several times, killing him. He puts the pistol in the dead man’s hand and escapes through the open window.

Sexual repression, a bit of a trite explanation for the psychology of fascism. The Conformist luckily works beyond a reductive formula that might point to sexual trauma as the primary event, the sole cause for Marcello being the way he is. Bertolucci is instead concerned with articulating something less tangible, a sort of emptiness at the center of fascist subjects. Marcello is a manifestation of this emptiness; it’s why he’s so compelling a character and, in a sense, so boring a man. In nearly all works of fiction, characters are endowed with at least a basic sense of interiority, some foundational personality, morality, or myth that drives them. But Marcello’s not driven by any “self” nor is he driven by faith, politics, money, sex. It’s not an inherent sense of individuality that moves him but rather the exact opposite: a lack of individuality, an absence. Marcello wants to be normal more than anything. His guiding principle of conformity—making himself in the image of everyone else—is his way of filling the person-sized emptiness in him. So if there’s a perversity to Marcello it’s here, in the fact of an individual that exists only on the brink of his own disappearance into the crowd.

There’s a sort of schizoid quality to the flickering personhood of young fascists. A slipperiness between delusion and reality, a breakdown of logical behavior, speech. Bertolucci’s film is structured so that the past constantly infringes upon the present: the story of Marcello carrying out the assassination gets ever-prolonged by his broken memory. Somewhat similarly, the visual language of the film oscillates between extremes of light and dark, artifice and reality, in a style now termed “expressionist.” In one dazzling scene, for example, Marcello confronts his target, Professor Quadri, for the first time. Marcello enters the professor’s study and Quadri greets him. The professor then stands and shuts one of the room’s two windows so there’s only a single source of light in the space. Both men appear as dark shapes now, their shadows playing on the wall behind Marcello. Their conversation turns to Plato’s allegory of the cave, the topic of Marcello’s abandoned thesis. The scenario: a group of men are chained together in a cavern, viewing the shadows projected by puppets moving in front of a faraway fire. These prisoners, of course, perceive the shadows before them as reality—making the same mistake, Quadri says, as the people of Italy. So here Bertolucci shows us two men, themselves silhouettes, products of light projected from a single point, debating the fallibility of light and shadow, the politics of perception, representation. If fascism to Genet is theater, fascism to Bertolucci is cinema: an ideology based on mis-recognition, a politics in the strangeness of reflections projected onto a great empty space.

Now return here: guys I grew up with are voicing and re-voicing opinions that, in their disdain for human rights, obsession with nationalism and national security, and strange affection for the supremacy of violence, seem to champion a set of ideals that we could call “fascist.” Why does hate bloom like this in the young men of Middle America?

What The Conformist describes so brilliantly is how the violence of fascism often grows not from evil but from nothingness, from a crisis in what it means to be an individual. The film’s critique is essentially this: men who become fascists do so because it’s easy, because fascism is the path of least resistance for individuals unable or unwilling to make their own choices. But isn’t the American heartland the very cradle of individualism, the place where one is most protected from the facelessness of the crowd? Here is where you can choose to grow up to be a quarterback, fighter pilot, movie star, where even if such flashiness eludes you, you’d still be some minimum of normal, charting a unique path through life, atoms of the universe rearranging themselves in your wake, easy. But the cowboy promise of being a man is, in the end, an empty one made by a mass culture tasked with convincing everyone they’re special. In this sense, this culture of American individualism achieves the very thing that it supposedly fundamentally opposes: conformity. And so at some point the young white men of America look around, maybe with a certain bewilderment, and realize they turned out normal, sure, but that their normal lacks the heroism that was advertised.

After Mussolini was ousted in 1943, the symbol of the perched eagle bearing the fasces was taken down from where it had been affixed on various walls overlooking public streets. Still, the sort of inverse-image of the eagle remained imprinted on these surfaces, the product of years’ accumulation of soot, dirt. Under fascism, again we find this weird equality of signs and absence of signs, things and their shadows. Likewise in America: the absence of suffering is sometimes confused, perversely, for real suffering. The anger of boys in my hometown—a town named Verona, after the city where the Italian Republican Fascist Party would hold its first and only congress—hardens in this strange vacuum of a life that seems so hard only because it’s so easy. And maybe it’s here, in the vacuum, that fascism finds a foothold. Here, fascism promises a reconciliation of the masses and the individual. In 2020, it parrots the heroic language of individualism while appealing always to that joy of losing oneself to a crowd. It speaks of the so-called “silent majority” while simultaneously declaring how “only you” can take a stand against crime/riots/urban violence. It says: only you (backed by the countless others like you) can protect the virtues of a nation on the edge of moral bankruptcy.

There is a general belief that far-right violence is born in darkness, that the people that live by its gospel reside in some corner far removed from normal social life, like those ancient, sightless fish of caves. But the example of Marcello Clerici—with his bourgeois upbringing and his profound indifference to personality—shows how it’s exactly the “normal” that produces such extremes. So when the time comes, and I think that it has, it’s inevitable that the fascists will be people we know. They’ll be smiling in the pictures, they’ll be wearing red ball-caps, sitting, say, in the front seat of a parked truck, armed with iPhones, other toys. They’ll make videos, promises of hurt and revenge. And then perhaps they’ll start the truck, that burnished chariot, and drive through a flat country where one’s distance from the horizon remains constant regardless of one’s speed. If you were there, driving fast and looking straight ahead through the windshield, it would appear, maybe, as though you weren’t moving at all.


Brief coda: A day after I finished writing this, a 17-year-old with a semi-automatic rifle drove from Illinois to Kenosha, Wisconsin and murdered two people that were protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Because circumstances of the killing very much resemble those I describe in my own hometown, I initially wanted to pull this piece from publication. There is an urgency to people getting shot in the head that makes one feel that “analysis” and “criticism” are sort of trivial or frivolous activities, especially when done via films a half-century old. But in the wake of this real violence, those moved by the same sense of duty as the shooter began a type of “film criticism” of their own. Almost instantly those blurry cellphone images of the event were analyzed as a means of “proving” that the killer was a hero who acted in defense of himself/the community. The teenager with the long gun was very quickly made to stand for something beyond himself, which is to say he became a type of symbol. Here, in a sense, is a certain overlap between the concerns of fascism and criticism: both deal with the power of metaphor and symbols. So maybe if criticism can “do” anything in the face of fascist violence, its potential lies in its ability to meet fascism precisely on the level of the things the ideology holds so dear: aestheticism, representation, allegory.