In the latest issue:

Short Cuts

Jonathan Parry

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

At the MoviesMichael Wood
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Vol. 30 No. 6 · 20 March 2008
At the Movies

‘The Conformist’

Michael Wood

The Conformist 
directed by Bernardo Bertolucci.
August 1970
Show More
Show More

There is a fine, far-reaching moment in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, handsomely set up by the director and beautifully spun out by the actor. Peter Sellers, as the creepy and protean Clare Quilty, has struck up a conversation with James Mason, as Humbert Humbert. The latter is in no mood for any kind of conversation, since he is just marking time before he returns to his hotel room to have sex, as he hopes, with his under-age stepdaughter. Quilty, having mysteriously divined most of this, pretends to be a plainclothes policeman and starts up a series of speculations about what ‘a really normal guy’ like Humbert must be feeling. Mason, who most of the time looks a touch too normal for the movie’s good – sinister, but normal – gets very uncomfortable and by the time Quilty, thoroughly enjoying himself, has used the word ‘normal’ for the fifth or sixth time, both characters seem distinctly weird and the very idea of normality appears freakish. How could anyone be ‘normal’? What could be stranger?

This is half of the question that dominates Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), which is on the road around the country throughout this month and next. This was Bertolucci’s second major film, following on from Before the Revolution (1964) and preceding The Spider’s Stratagem (also 1970) and Last Tango in Paris (1973). It’s based on a novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia, and both movie and novel pursue a curious double project. One part of it is to suggest, along with Kubrick and Sellers, that normality is a truly peculiar idea; or at least it’s peculiar to think of possessing it, as distinct from attributing it to others or working it out from statistics. The other part is to suggest that for a person seeking normality in the 1930s in Italy, Fascism would be an entirely reasonable option, perhaps the only place to go. I’m not sure how much the hearts of Moravia and Bertolucci are really in the second part of the project, but even their faint adherence to it colours and weakens the movie. Our hero, Marcello Clerici, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant with a tidy, jumpy precision that is itself a form of eccentricity, not only wants to be normal, he wants to be ‘pardoned by society’. Perhaps the wish is too irrational to be scrutinised, but why does he think Fascism is normal, or represents society, even when it is in office, or that it could pardon him?

We do see why he wants to be normal, strange as the idea is. His father is in a madhouse – a place with what looks like an open-air theatre in the grounds so that it seems to be set up for spectacle rather than cure or care – and appears to have had a job as a torturer in his earlier life. Marcello’s mother is a morphine addict who frolics with the Japanese chauffeur when she’s awake. And Marcello himself killed a man, or believes he killed a man, when he was 13: another chauffeur, Italian this time, who made sexual advances and was distracted enough to let the kid grab the revolver and shoot. Marcello is going to marry and then does marry the dimmest, most conventional girl he can find, although even she turns out to have had a long affair with her 60-year-old uncle.

The film, shot by Vittorio Storaro (Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now), looks fantastic, and like the movie’s question about normalcy, has two registers. Paris, where Marcello has come to assassinate his former professor, now an Anti-Fascist in exile, is made to look misty and beautiful but is unmistakably a real place. By contrast, almost everything in Italy looks like a hallucination: streets shot on a slant, a crumbling old mansion, its garden smothered in fallen leaves, a government office that resembles an empty Modernist football stadium, another office that could well serve as a war memorial in its spare time. Fascism in this world is all about size and space, a Leni Riefenstahl movie in another country, its people dwarfed by architecture.

There was much talk of the movie’s high style when it first appeared, and it still seems very stylish. Except that now it seems to be all about style: decor, dresses, the amazing eye make-up of Stefania Sandrelli as Marcello’s wife, the smouldering glances of Dominique Sanda as the bisexual wife of the exiled professor. There is a plot: Marcello is waiting to perform the assassination, then goes off to do it. He doesn’t do it, because his secret service superiors, correctly suspecting him of wavering, have sent a whole gang to take care of things, but he does attend the assassination. For the rest of the movie we are either following flashbacks to Marcello’s earlier years in the hallucinated Italy or wandering around Paris with him and his wife, killing time rather than people. This is not a complaint – the waiting and the final assassination are the best things in the movie – but it does mean that if you came looking for suspense or a thriller you’ll be disappointed.

The question of normality gets cleared up by a resort to an old Italian movie myth, also dear to Rossellini and Visconti: homosexual guilt. Marcello can’t get over his brush with the chauffeur, and the chauffeur’s pass at him, it turns out, was far more traumatic than the chauffeur’s apparent death. The trauma takes a twist at the end of the movie when Marcello, after the fall of Mussolini, meets up again with the man, played by Pierre Clémenti, his long dark locks now replaced by a sweep of thin blond hair that makes him look like Andy Warhol. Marcello, frantic with surprise and outrage at the chauffeur’s continuing existence, accuses him of having assassinated the professor in France in 1938. He also calls the man a Fascist, and makes the same charge, with more justification, against an old friend who is with him, and who was a Fascist theorist. Isn’t or wasn’t Marcello a Fascist? This is where the myth kicks in. He was just trying to be straight, that’s what ‘normal’ meant. The myth isn’t homosexual guilt itself, of course, but the suggestion that without homosexual guilt Fascism in Italy would never really have got off the ground, or at least wouldn’t have been interesting. The attraction of the myth is that it plays in two modes, gay and macho. The problem can be the guilt or the homosexuality, but either way no one ever gets over it, and the effects are disastrous.

Fortunately the film doesn’t need us to take any of this very seriously, and we realise what Bertolucci cares about, and what all the stylish waiting was setting us up for, when we reach the assassination scene. Marcello and his secret service minder follow the professor’s car as he leaves Paris. The roads are snowy, visibility is poor. As far as we know, and as far as he knows, Marcello is about to carry out a killing. The flashbacks in this sense are in a way stalling, and obliquely suggest something like the reverse of suspense: Marcello’s desire not to get where he is going at the present time. Finally, on the otherwise empty road, a car coming in the other direction almost crashes into the professor’s car and everyone stops – Marcello and his minder sitting in their Citroën some twenty or thirty yards behind the other cars. At no point in this scene do they get out of their car, or show any major emotion, not even when Dominique Sanda, pursued by her husband’s killers, claws at their window, before continuing her vain attempt to escape into the forest.

What has happened is that the professor got out of his car to see if he could help the driver of the car coming the other way, who was slumped over his steering wheel. At this cue a whole gang of armed, overcoated men ran out of the forest and knifed the professor, as if he were Julius Caesar. None of this is in slow motion, but it feels as if it might be, since the whole thing is so lovingly photographed, as though the film were carefully constructing a ghastly but irresistible memory, finally building a real trauma. We get the sense that watching a man and his wife die can’t be worse than killing them, but isn’t much better either, and in this respect we do need the scene that follows, back in Italy, where the radio is announcing Mussolini’s fall and there are people celebrating in the streets of Rome. We need it not so that we can pick up the pieces of the old myth, but so that we can see that the quest for normality, whatever its likely or unlikely grounds, can itself be murderous, since it cares for nothing but its own pursuit of a blessing or a pardon that is not to be had.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.