In his article, “Bertolucci’s Dream Loom,” Jefferson Kline provides this quotation from Bertolucci: “The Spider’s Stratagem and The Conformist have in common the theme of betrayal, the presence of the past that returns, and the weight of the paternal figure.” Although he notes one distinct difference in the two films—The Spider’s Stratagem details a father’s betrayal, while The Conformist reveals a betrayal of the father—Bertolucci adds: “In any case the films treat two parricides which suppose a past and a memory.”
In The Conformist, the main character, Marcello, attempts to atone for his “crime” as a child by becoming a fascist, thus hoping to blend into society. Consequently, he marries the most mundane woman he can find and even accepts an order to assassinate his former professor--and father figure--the anti-fascist Quadri. Mira Liehm, quoting Mirando Morandini, explains: “In the name of fascism, he kills, attempting to wipe out his previous crime by another criminal action, which is this time, so to speak, legalized (275).” Marcello’s ‘previous crime’, the supposed murder of the chauffeur, Lino, is a strikingly visual sequence that is presented to the viewer as a flashback. In this essay I will examine the way in which Bertolucci uses camera movement and discontinuity editing in order to relay the visual effect of memory in this sequence.
As many commentators have noted, including Bertolucci himself, Marcello’s murder of Quadri at the film’s conclusion is a symbolic representation of the director’s assassination of Jean-Luc Godard, the French director who greatly influenced his films in the 1960s. Ironically, however, Bertolucci uses many of Godard’s own pioneering, French New Wave techniques in the seduction/murder sequence with Lino. The sequence begins with Marcello’s confession to a priest, a necessary step before marrying Guila.
Immediately, one notices Bertolucci’s hand at work. The screen is divided almost in half by the priest’s window, placing him on the left side of the screen with Marcello on the right. Whereas Marcello is established against a white background, the priest is shrouded in black. This juxtaposition of light and dark is apparent throughout the film, specifically in the “Plato’s Cave” scene with Marcello and Quadri. Furthermore, this contrast between light and dark is perhaps representative of Bertolucci’s larger point about the human desire to conform. For Marcello, the situation is black and white; he must be a fascist, or be abnormal, there is no gray area. After the priest asks why he did not feel the need to confess his sin—the murder of Lino—Marcello replies: “I was thirteen.” The scene then cuts to a long shot of Lino’s car as Lino and Marcello (the boy) get out and begin to playfully chase each other around. Whereas in the Classical Hollywood Cinema the long shot would be used as an establishing shot, followed perhaps by a medium shot and close-ups, Bertolucci’s camera pans right and left, constantly reframing itself in relation to their movements. Furthermore, the camera slowly zooms forward, thus reducing the shot scale, before quickly zooming back to the original long shot.
Within these initial movements, the function of memory is revealed. When remembering an incident from one’s past, the individual does not assume his or her original position; rather, one serves as a spectator watching the events unfold. Like the eyes of a spectator, the camera here follows the movements of Marcello and Lino from side to side, slowly trying to focus its attention forward on the scene. At this point, I would argue that the camera directly represents Marcello—he is the spectator spying on his past! In accordance with this theory, it is not surprising that the scene then jump cuts from the long shot to a medium shot of Marcello and Lino still fraternizing. (The use of the jump cut here is reminiscent of Godard in Breathless (1959), to name one example.) This subversion of the continuity editing system follows our discussion of the nature of memory. Does one ever remember an event precisely as it unfolded? Bertolucci’s answer seems to be that he or she remembers merely fragments of the event.
Discontinuity is further established in the very next scene as Marcello can be seen in a long shot running toward some bushes on his right. Through ellipsis, Lino suddenly appears behind the bushes with Marcello. What is notable here is that the camera is not allowed behind the bushes with them. Through perceptual veiling Bertolucci prevents his audience from seeing the characters, thus reiterating the function of the camera as spectator. In this case, the futility of the spectator trying to capture what actually occurred is once again revealed.
After a brief exchange concerning Marcello’s treatment by a group of boys, Lino runs to the left with the boy in pursuit. Lino then turns and proceeds towards the house on the right; the camera pulls back to a long shot in order to show both characters running. Curiously, as Lino moves out of the frame, the camera abruptly tracks right and forward, in order to follow Marcello. The result of this brusque move again provides the effect that the camera may in fact be substituting for Marcello as the spectator.
Once both characters enter the house, and we see Marcello trailing Lino on the stairs, the camera is then placed in another significant position. Specifically, after a POV shot from Marcello on the stairs, the next cut reveals a medium shot of Lino running through an upstairs doorway. As Lino moves toward the camera, the camera quickly pulls back, resting behind a white sheet. After Lino passes through the sheet, the camera reframes anticipating Marcello’s arrival. How exactly the camera moves from in front of the sheet to behind it so smoothly is not exactly clear; the framing here is somewhat confusing for the viewer. Nevertheless, the notion of Marcello as a silent observer in this sequence is reinforced. The camera moves like a person would, hiding quickly behind the sheet as Marcello and Lino approach.
Also notable in the upstairs sequence is the exaggerated use of white sheets. After Marcello runs through the sheet, the camera pans to the right holding a long shot of the corridor draped in sheets from the foreground to the back. Immediately, the viewer recognizes that he or she is not seeing reality. No home would actually have that many sheets hanging on clotheslines. The image of the sheet is simply the dominant image in Marcello’s mind as he reinvestigates this consequential scene from his childhood. Bertolucci uses hyperbole similarly later in the film when Marcello gets the assignment to kill Quadri: his boss’s office is filled with nuts, covering his shelves and on his desk.
Once within Lino’s room, Bertolucci presents another moment of ellipsis. First, Lino pushes Marcello into the room and onto the bed. The two are framed in a medium long shot with the boy face down on the bed to the right, and Lino on the left standing up. Suddenly, the scene cuts to another medium long shot. This time, however, Lino has moved to the right of Marcello as he lies on the bed. Furthermore, he has taken his jacket off. The camera then pans left and tilts down as Lino startles Marcello and pulls out his gun—the object which drew him up to the bedroom in the first place. Next, the camera tracks forward slowly as Lino takes off his hat and lets out his hair, revealing it to be long and woman-like. Bertolucci then cuts back to the present day where Marcello substantiates this claim to the priest: “He looked so much like a woman…He trembled like a woman.” The scene then returns to Lino’s bedroom where Marcello finally commits his crime. He shoots the gun repeatedly, apparently striking and killing Lino, and in the process murdering the father-mother simultaneously. Besides showing his audience Marcello’s crime—the very basis for his activities as a fascist—Bertolucci perhaps also explains why Marcello later thinks of his hat at the precise moment when he is handed a gun. For him, the gun as an object will forever be linked to the image of Lino removing his hat. Essentially, the Oedipal moment defines Marcello’s character. In the end, as fascism is being overturned, he betrays his friend in one final attempt to become ‘normal.’
The Conformist is by no means a simple film to follow, as the complexity of this sequence illustrates. Through a number of formal techniques, including ellipsis and jump cuts, Bertolucci effectively relays the function of memory for his main character.