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Plot Details: This Review Reveals Minor Details About the Plot.

When in Rome

The Conformist

Plot Overview

A telephone rings answered by Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant.) “It's me” Manganiello (Gastone Moschin.) “Every­thing all right?” No, “the woman is gone.” But the plan must be followed, “I'll be waiting in front of the hotel.”

Marcello had been recruited as a fascist spy in Rome circa 1938. He is being tested with a new assignment to set up the assassination of his erst­while anti-fascist professor Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) in Paris using the pretext of visiting him while he's in town on his honey­moon. Manganiello is his minder to make sure he goes through with it.

On the drive to the hit, we are treated to several interlinked flashbacks throwing light on Marcello's state of mind. As a boy of privilege he was bullied by the other kids on the play­ground, then he was molested by the chauffeur in an incident that turned violent. He turned to prostitutes at 18. Then he joined the movement. Now he's getting married, as “marriage will get us the impression of normalcy.” In a 1930s fascist society, homo­sexuality was a career killer … for men, although women were given a pass. His wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) is an air­head (“She's all bed and kitchen.”) Unfortu­nately, Prof. Quadri's much younger wife Anna (Dominique Sanda) is one of Marcello's hookers, or reminds him of her, and now she is riding with her husband while he is due to be hit. Further­more, the professor was Marcello's mentor—Marcello didn't have strong parental guidance—and who turned tail and ran when the political climate got too hot, leaving Marcello only the cowardly example, so how is he going to go through with this?

Giulia's parents had forced Marcello to go to confession after a life­time lapse, in order to permit the marriage. While he'd let his religion slip, he'd climbed onto the new fascist movement. Recall history that Mussolini was deposed soon enough, but the (neglected) church is still going strong, and is a factor in Marcello's growing family life. And while his wife was able to sort out her former lover, Marcello seems to be confronted by his. He's got some inter­esting problems, although he's not written as a charis­matic character.


The two intellectuals discuss Plato's Allegory of the Cave. People inside the cave are observing shadows on the back wall, of the real people out­side passing by the mouth. Maybe, thought Plato, the shadows are real and the people are the illusion. How­ever that may be, checking my notes I find one disruption in the reality portrayed on screen: The license plate number of the chauf­feured car in Marcello's youth is the same on the car driving him currently: GY7500. Strange.

Okay, let's break it into its letters and numbers. Marcello's pickup was at Hotel Palais D'Orsay. We can make from the letters a word that rhymes: Palais / D'Orsay / GAY. True, I'm dealing in English with a movie that's in French, but our English gay is derived from the French word gai. That leaves 7500 which is 3/4 x 10,000. Since gay has (broadly) four meanings, let's just take three of them and see how they fit the movie. From CGB in Word Lore: The History of 200 Intriguing Words (New York: Gramercy Books, 2006) pp. 103f., his time­line shows “the ‘homo­sexual’ sense of gay not established until the late 1930s or early 1940s … then known only to homo­sexual, bohemian, or artistic subcultures.” Our movie is set right before that happened, so the word could have had only three meanings any­way.

Gay can mean brightly colored. In the theme of the movie, Giulia was unwilling to go to the ball unless she purchased a gown. That's similar to the theme in James 2:2-4 about requiring dressy clothes, “gay clothing,” for church. Being in the Bible gives the word a stability of usage over time. Here in “The Conformist” Marcello picks up a violet, a Parma violet—the director was born there—for the cause, being a gay accessory.

My 1958 Thorndike-Barnhart Comprehensive Desk Dictionary defines: “gay, adj., 4. dissipated; immoral.” That is still current usage as explained by a writer-character in the 2014 movie “Love is Strange,” as used by the young in the expression, "That's so gay" having nothing to do with sexual orientation, but meaning (broadly) "stupid." In “The Conformist” Prof. Quadri is portrayed as being dissipated, for having married a woman “young enough to be his daughter” and then for propo­sitioning Giulia, his former student's wife, on the dance floor. His wife Anna is shown as immoral for her hooker history, teasing Marcello, and coming on as a “seductress” to Giulia.

At the radio station where Marcello announces to his blind friend Italo (José Quaglio) his intention of getting married in order to blend in, we see simultaneously a trio of women in the back­ground singing in sync “Who's Happier Than I?” It is the normal goal for a man's marriage to be happy, (Eccl. 9:9) “Live joy­fully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of thy life.” His goal being to take a honey­moon with his ditsy bride to gai Paris (pronounced gay Paree), he'd be lining him­self up for a gay marriage, and there's nothing wrong with such happiness.

Over time gay has also come to mean homosexual. By decree in some states recently same-sex marriage has been legalized, but the synonyms we use for it are up for grabs. Homo­sexuals who consider them­selves immutably born that way have a lot of political clout and have promoted same-sex marriage. More power to them. This movie deals, how­ever, with the homo­sexual experimenter, from a dysfunctional family perhaps, who is embarrassed, seeks absolution from the priest, and wants to put that part of his life behind him, burning his bridges. He wants to go on to a gay (happy hetero­sexual) marriage. Are we going to make it harder for him by using the dyad gay marriage to mean same-sex marriage when that usage adds nothing to the legal benefits of same-sex unions? Or might we not be more humane to keep to the older expression of gay marriage as a happy one?

Production Values

“The Conformist” (1970), originally titled “Il conformista,” was written and directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, based on the steamy novel The Conformist by Italian author Albert Moravia. The novel, of course, has more space to develop the protagonist's inner musings; in the movie he's just dark. The film stars Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, and Gastone Moschin. The performances all were great, particularly of Trintignant, Sandrelli and Sanda, each perfectly portraying a blend of emotions.

Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's camera work was masterful. Georges Delerue's score was emotionally haunting. Ferdinando Scarfiotti's production design was cool, having a different look for each of the two cities, Rome & Paris. It was Franco Arcalli's inspired editing that smoothly linked together episodes that the director had intended to show linearly through time. “The Conformist” had only a limited release in the U.S., and that only through attention drawn to it from winning a New York film festival and getting good reviews. How­ever, other directors saw it, and it has since been much imitated.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

The Conformist” is great viewing, because the technical composition moves one compellingly along although the lead part is so dark and closed off he fails to grab one's interest. The women were inter­esting, though. There's probably a lot to do with Italy's troubled times that I'm ignorant of, but this film seems to have universal application to life in various political and social climates. I'm giving it high marks over­all, although there are other stories more suitable for conversion to the cinema.

Movie Ratings

Action factor: Well done action flick Suitability for Children: Suitable for children 13+ years. Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day. Special effects: Well, at least you can't see the strings. Suspense: A few suspenseful moments. Overall product rating: Five stars out of five.