Friday, January 04, 2008

The Conformist: Grasping at shadows

I just watched Bernardo Bertolucci's stunningly beautiful adaptation of Alberto Moravia's Il Conformista (The Conformist), and was struck by the timeliness and timelessness of its tale — one man's misguided compulsion to fit in and his pursuant descent into the abyss of self-denial.

It's a film that is at once absurdly comical and heartbreakingly resonant. With the help of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci visually captures the dissonance of a man trapped between light and shadow. Released in 1970 and set in 1930s Italy, its themes echo concerns ever current in the writings I encounter in my varied journeys through today's mainstream media and blogosphere.

The story's anti-hero, Marcello Clerici (played perfectly by Jean-Louis Trintignant), is motivated by the guilt of an assumed childhood crime and, more importantly, the need to atone for the self-perceived sin of being "other." His self-inflicted punishment is an embrace of the dominant fascist ideology and the trappings of a "normal" life — religion, marriage and family.

Clerici, ever conflicted, curries favor with murderous masters and takes on an assignment to seek out and destroy a "subversive" former teacher. Professor Quadri's escape to exile in free Paris was a contradictory double betrayal to Clerici — offending the patriotism of his fascist overlords and stoking a sense of abandonment from his idealized past.

Using a non-linear narrative, the film begins with the onset of a final chase that will end with Clerici as trapped spectator to a macabre and horrific climactic scene. He can do nothing but stare stiffly and dispassionately from a car window at the tragedy that unfolds before him.

Between that start and its seemingly inevitable conclusion, we skip along with Clerici through the shadowy memories of the events that lead him down this slippery path. Below I've posted the clip where he first meets Quadri again in Paris and recounts his professor's lecture on Plato's Myth of the Cave. It's one of the film's critical moments and a telling metaphor for our own time.

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