I WANT TO CONFESS TODAY THE SIN I’LL COMMIT TOMORROW.
by Taylor K. Long
Awhile back, I saw an episode of one of those evening magazine news shows that has stuck with me through the years. In it, a group of people was asked to identify shapes. When answering by themselves, the group was largely correct. But then they were asked to answer out loud, in front of the others. This time, there was a staggering drop in the number of correct answers. Someone in the group would inevitably answer incorrectly, and the others began to doubt if they had been right in the first place. Some people chirped the answers without pause—others you could see visibly struggling, debating, working it over in their minds. The people conducting the experiment tied this phenomenon to a pack mentality, a survival instinct that people haven’t been able to shake, despite years of evolution.
In Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, we are presented with the internal struggle of Marcello Clerici, a man who willingly volunteers to be the assassin of Professor Quadri, an outspoken anti-fascist—who happens to be Clerici’s former mentor. What kind of man accepts an assignment with such a personal cost, and why?
We quickly learn the answer to the first part. On several occasions, Clerici is shown mildly resisting before being easily swayed. Giulia, his fiancee, asks him to go to confession before they get married and he refuses, but quickly agrees after some light pleading. Upon being anonymously accused of having syphilis by a rival suitor for Giulia’s affections, Clerici denies the claim, but also cheerfully offers to get tested. Clerici is a man with nothing to hide—or so he would like to be.
During his confession, we learn that Clerici’s compliance stems from the one time in the entire film that we see him act with any conviction—resulting in an attempt at kill both someone else and a part of himself. Clerici must think life will be simpler with fascism, someone telling him what’s right and wrong, what’s normal.
He makes repeated mention of wanting to be normal, but when he finally does so, he openly admits that this is a cover, hinting at a farce. After he confesses to the priest, he promises him, “I am going to build a life that is normal… I am going to construct my normality.”
Clerici is morbid enough that he conspires to turn his honeymoon with Giulia into his assassination excursion, but not so detached that he can deny himself the chance to meet with Quadri again, face-to-face, as opposed to stalking him in the dark like a spy.
In his meeting with Quadri, Clerici recalls Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which prisoners are chained to a wall with a fire behind them, viewing the shadows of what passes, a distorted reality. This was supposed to be the topic for Clerici’s thesis, which he didn’t finish, out of anger at Quadri for leaving. “You left and I became a fascist,” he complains.
This meeting with Quadri hints at a pool of anger, feelings of abandonment and inadequacy, and we yearn for him to tap into it, to express it, to do something, anything. After Clerici picks up the gun, and is given the go-ahead to kill Quadri whenever he sees fit, the sadistic hope that he will pull the trigger builds and builds, not because Quadri deserves to die, but because Clerici is like a blindfolded kid going after a pinata, pointing his bat in every direction but the right one, and GOOD LORD someone please just grab his shoulders and steer him in the right direction, or I swear I will grab that bat and do the damn thing myself.
This inability to feel or to act is part of what makes Clerici so hard to connect with, or even hate. Despite his repeated mentions of conscious attempts at normalcy, most of his story is a product of ambivalence and indecision rather than thoroughly thought out and decided plans.
Clerici doesn’t just bury his feelings for the professor. He shows no pity for his morphine-addicted mother, nor his driven-mad-from-syphilis father, nor for Giulia, who at the start of their honeymoon confesses to being repeatedly raped for six years by a family friend. He simply carries on as though none of it is true—does he ignore these things because they threaten his desire for a “normal” life, or he has become so apathetic from attempting to bury his own secrets that nobody else’s can phase him?
Because our view of these characters—his family, Giulia, Professor Quadri and his wife, Anna—is through Clerici’s distant perspective, it’s equally hard to feel for them, though our brains recognize that we should. They embrace someone who, though he wants acceptance from an abstract society, doesn’t take it from the individuals who actually give it to him.
But then, that The Conformist lacks an emotional center is the ultimate point. The rampant, enforced hatred of fascism doesn’t just turn people on themselves, it neuters them, renders them unable or unwilling to think or to act, waiting and expecting that someone else will not only tell them what to do, but ultimately do it for them. In any other instance, a tepid emotional response to a film would be part of its downfall—but that Bertolucci can numb the viewer, in this case, is instead a testament to the film’s hypnosis.
Years after Clerici’s dilemma with the Quadris, Mussolini’s rule has come to an end, and the people are dragging his (statue’s) head through the streets. Clerici sits on a set of steps. He looks over his shoulder, at the fire behind him, and a man playing a record. Is Clerici finally turning away from the dance of the shadows in front of him, and towards the reality of light?
Taylor K. Long is a writer living in Vermont. She’s still in touch with her freshman year English professor, who she likes very much. She tumbls here and tweets here.