Sunday, November 13, 2011

Just an Ordinary Average Guy

Film: Il Conformista (The Conformist)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

We expect certain thing from spy movies in general. The standard spy movie follows a path like Three Days of the Condor or the Jason Bourne films. In these, a spy gets put into a strange or terrible or bad situation and needs to fight his way out of it. We root for the spy in these cases. James Bond is probably the most classic example of good guy spy. Even when Bond is a bastard, we still kind of like him and expect him to come out on top. The other end of the spy thriller holds stories like The Eye of the Needle, where the spy is the bad guy and needs to be stopped by the film’s heroes.

So it’s a touch ironic that a film called Il Conformista (The Conformist) doesn’t conform to either of these two possibilities. The spy, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), is our main character, but he’s almost impossible to root for. The first part of this is that he’s really not a spy, but a government-paid assassin. That isn’t enough to stop most people from still rooting for him though. What does is that the government he works for is Mussolini’s fascist government in the 1930s.

Our character is interesting in a way, though. The film has this name, and is named after him, because he wants nothing more than to fit in wherever he is. We take up the story as he is planning to get married to the very sexy and evidently sex-starved Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli). We learn a lot of his past when he is essentially forced to go to confession before the wedding, since the priest will not marry the pair until both have confessed.

What we learn is that he was excluded from other children as a child, and thus was often badly abused by his schoolmates. He was also evidently abused sexually by his family’s chauffer. It’s also worth noting that at this point, the chauffer has a pistol that Marcello takes and shoots randomly. He manages to shoot the chauffer at this point, too, and this murder is one of the things that he confesses to.

Marcello’s government contact, Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) tells Marcello that he is to head to Paris and contact a man named Quadri (Enzo Tarascio). Quadri is a retired professor who left Italy because he was staunchly anti-fascist, which in the parlance of the time means he is a communist. To make everything work, Marcello marries Giulia and takes her to Paris on their honeymoon. And it’s there that Manganiello tells Marcello that Quadri needs to be eliminated. This is complicated by the fact that Marcello, despite his recent marriage, wants to get humpy with Anna (Dominique Sanda), the professor’s sexy wife who may have been a prostitute and may have a history with him. Oh, and it turns out that Quadri was once one of Marcello’s professors.

This is an odd movie, and it struck me oddly. I just watched the film and have almost no memory of it and almost no opinion on it. It is pretty stylish and nice to look at, but this desire of Marcello to simply fit in, to create the perfect life for himself, isn’t nearly explored enough. It’s brought up a number of times, but it didn’t really go anywhere for me. Certainly the ending gets to the same place and shows us exactly how far Marcello will go to fit in, but there’s not enough of why he is the way he is.

I don’t really know. I’m continuing to write on this, but I don’t have anything much more to say. Ultimately, that’s how I felt about Il Conformista; it keeps going, but doesn’t say much.

Why to watch Il Conformista: A spy thriller with a very odd resolution.
Why not to watch: It’s sort of hard to care.


  1. Yea, I watched this film about 4 years ago and I too found a lot of the details instantly forgettable. I remember the music being nice and the images being pretty, but beyond that it just never made much of an impression.

  2. Good to know I'm not alone in this. It's not a terrible movie, but it's a restaurant meal at a chain restaurant. The food is decent, but not memorable, satisfying without being outstanding. It fills its purpose and little else.

  3. I really liked this film when I watched it on my one and only viewing. It was for a course at university, and I was blown away. Disappointingly, I can't remember particulars of the story - but I do remember it being technically ambitious (cinematography and editing, and throwing in film noir conventions etc.) I got really caught up in the story too.

    I'll have to see if it holds up - but I have always heard such great things about the film. Last month I posted one of my university essays and I mention The Conformist and how the central character conformed to the social mores of 1930's Italy, and how he tried to hide his repressed homosexuality by marrying a bourgeois woman - and his perception of Italy at this period. Great write-up Steve. I'm sorry you didn't like it more.

  4. Thanks. It's this kind of film that makes me realize that as much as I might have pretensions of it, I'm really not cut out to be a top-line film snob. It is technically excellent. The character is fascinating in that way--he'll do absolutely anything to fit in with the people around him, and that's made explicit by the ending of the film.

    While all of that is true and thus should make it a film snob's dream, I found it completely forgettable. The fact that I watched Kurt Russell in Solider the other day and enjoyed it a lot more than this film I guess is an indicator that I can try to be a snob about all of this, at heart I'm just a guy who likes movies.

    I'm slowly coming to terms with that being okay.

  5. I was a little worried, knowing that I had so very little to say about a film that did absolutely nothing for me.... then i read your review. I was vindicated. You sire, are correct.