Text Messages | Goodbye to a neorealist great

Bernardo Bertolucci will live on through his brilliant screen adaptation of ‘The Conformist’, Alberto Moravia’s celebrated novel about living

Bernardo Bertolucci made one of the most notorious films in cinema history, Last Tango in Paris, and one of the most awarded, The Last Emperor. The last in a great line of Italian neorealist film makers, Bertolucci died this week at the age of 78.

It is tempting to speculate that Italy’s rekindled relationship with fascism sped an old man to his death. Bertolucci drew his last breath in the same week that Italy’s interior minister, the far-right populist Matteo Salvini, sat at the controls of a bulldozer and himself began the demolition of an old villa in Rome that had housed a Roma community for decades. Salvini’s despicable publicity stunt spoke more than anything of just how far Italy has regressed to the right in recent times.

The country that had seen many communist and left-wing governments since the end of World War II, that in its neorealist films and literature had chronicled the appalling living and working conditions of its working class, and that had tried to do something about the inequalities of class and privilege, seemed to have disappeared. In its place is a ruling elite of neo-Mussolinis, pumped up with self-righteousness and self-importance, and peddling hate and death towards “outsiders” and its own poor and vulnerable.

Bertolucci came from a bourgeois background which, though he never entirely disowned, did not sit comfortably with the way his own social and political ideas developed. Born on 16 March 1940, he owed much of his intellectual development to a father who was an art history teacher, poet, anthologist and film critic. The young Bertolucci made his first films at age 15, both short features about children, and published his first book, In cerca del mistero (In Search of Mystery), at 22. The book won the Premio Viareggio, one of Italy’s top literary prizes.

But it was to moving images that Bertolucci turned for the full expression of his artistic and cultural sensibilities. His first films, The Grim Reaper (1962) and Before the Revolution (1964), drew critical praise but failed at the box office. He joined the Communist Party in 1960, although he later abandoned it and, as a director, became adamant that politics and film making films were bad bedfellows.

In 1970, Bertolucci released The Spider’s Stratagem, a film in which a young man returns to the place where his anti-fascist father was murdered at the hands of what was believed to be a pro-Mussolini faction. He discovers, to his discomfort, that history and myth, and fact and legend, can be very different.

Fortunately for the world, well before he rejected aspects of communism, Bertolucci made his masterpiece, Il conformista (The Conformist), in 1970. His own screen adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s famous novel of that name, it follows the tortured life of a civil servant whose attempts to fit in with society lead him to stifling conformity and an outrageous antisocial deed.

A quarter century later, on the centenary of the birth of cinema, the respected Time Out Film Guide polled directors, producers, actors, programmers and critics to vote for the best 100 films of the first century of cinema. The Conformist ranked 12th.

Bertolucci’s screenplay is not a full representation of Moravia’s novel. Out of necessity, screenplays have to lop off here, and trim there. What Bertolucci did was strip away most of the book’s rich psychological text and subtext, but completely capture its profound examination of sexual and political duality. In doing so, it also captures the workings of a dominant and oppressive social order in which the protagonist, Marcello, subsumes his own personality and personal and sexual desires to live “a normal life”.

So normal does Marcello become that the state realises it has in him a perfect weapon – and so it is that a featureless citizen becomes a political assassin, sent to eliminate Professor Quadri, his former mentor. Bertolucci mixes the two Marcellos, the two worlds of the upright and respectably uniform and the demimonde of killers, and the two cinematic genres of late neorealism and film noir, to dazzling effect.

Many of the visual tropes in the film have become standards of representation, among them the marbled, icily neoclassical Mussolini headquarters and the sexually ambiguous, gender-charged tango in a dance hall between two women. (Perhaps it’s here that Bertolucci began to plant the seeds that were to sprout so shockingly in Last Tango in Paris.)

Magnificent though the screen adaptation of The Conformist is, it’s not an insult to Bertolucci to say that the novel is an even rarer, even greater creation. Moravia would have been 111 this week – he was born Alberto Pincherle on 28 November 1907. His surname was a pseudonym for an eminent journalist, short-story writer and novelist. And here is a taste of Moravia’s words, from Il conformista:

During the summer, at the seaside, Marcello’s dread of what fate held in store for him – so simply expressed by the cook when she said: ‘You begin by killing a cat and you end by killing a man’ – faded gradually from his mind. He still thought often of that inscrutable, pitiless mechanism in which his life seemed, for days, to have become entangled; but he thought of it with a steadily diminishing fear, and more as an alarm signal than as the verdict without appeal which for some time had terrified him.

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