Clerici’s need to blend in with the crowd has its seed in the knowledge that he is NOT like everyone else. Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is not very forthcoming about himself, so Bertolucci colors in some details via interaction with other people. We meet his wife-to-be (Stefania Sandrelli) and learn that he essentially regards her as a shapely middle-class simpleton. She’s a safe choice for a partner. He visits his morphine addict mother and we learn from her of his father, locked away in an asylum. These episodes start to illustrate why Clerici wants to distance himself from his background.
There is also a telling flashback scene early on. In it, a young chauffer picks up adolescent Clerici and sexually abuses him. Clerici is obviously attracted to the chauffer on some level, but reacts with violence, killing the man with his own gun. The scene is a strange one, because we can never be sure how reliable this recollection is, or if it in fact ever really happened. What it does do is add some additional shading to Clerici, and how he views himself.
In Italy in 1938, conforming meant adherence to the Fascist cause. Clerici is recruited to the cause of rooting out vocal anti-Fascists, and this leads to his assignment to track down and assassinate his former university professor. The professor receives Clerici warmly, even though he knows early on that he is a Fascist and a potential danger to him. Complicating things is the presence of Professor Quadri’s wife Anna, played by Dominique Sanda. Anna and Clerici enter into an affair, despite the fact that she too knows what he is.
Any discussion of The Conformist has to touch on the look and feel achieved for this film. Cinematography, set design, costumes, and music are impeccable. There’s hardly a frame in the film that you wouldn’t want to frame and put up on your wall. Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro often shoot Trintigant in long shots with no other people in the frame, accentuating Clerici’s solitude. There’s great use of architecture, with vast stairways, elaborate metalwork, and huge office spaces with solitary desks in them. Mirrors are everywhere, and the film makes a point of showing Clerici having to repeatedly regard his own reflection.
The closer Clerici gets to his quarry, the more his resolve weakens. The relationship between the two men is interesting, and I wished the film had explored it further. Quadri is a man who has lived for a long time with beliefs that he could die for, and has accepted that. This gives him a sort of quiet bravery, and he debates Clerici head on about the younger man’s Fascist tinting.
The affair with Anna complicates things for Clerici. She seems to know intuitively that this new man means trouble, but goes ahead with the affair anyway. Sanda plays Anna as an uber-hippie sex goddess, carrying on a dalliance with Clerici and making none-too-subtle advances towards his wife, as well. The lesbian sub-plot is the one area of the film that seems needless. It is introduced, and then never really mentioned again. It could have been omitted with no great loss.
The opportunity for the murder finally presents itself, but the planning goes horribly wrong when someone who’s not supposed to get involved does. The assassination sequence is quite simply one of the great set pieces in movie history. Along a snowy forest road, the professor stops to assist what he believes to be a stricken driver, and meets his fate. In this job, however, there can be no witnesses, and Clerici has to watch as this detail is taken care of. It’s both a beautiful and horrible climax, and it ennobles the art form.
The film then skips forward a few years and we see Clerici at home with his wife and child, listening to the broadcasts of Mussolini’s downfall. This means repercussions for former fascists but Clerici isn’t worried about that. Once so fervent in his support of Mussolini, he is able to shed his beliefs like a snake shedding a skin. In the end, he is still trying to be one of the crowd, even at the price of betraying a former friend. As the screen goes to black, we see a defeated conformer sitting alone on a concrete step, a fitting backstop holding him up - A row of steel bars.