“The conformist”: architecture in film

I’ve always loved cinema. Especially during quarantine, I went through a cinema freak phase. It really was an obsession. I have never seen that many films. I watched a lot… some excellent and intelligent (according to culture and film nerds), and others not so much… But I don’t mind. In fact, I liked Mean girls as much as The shape of water, perhaps even more. Well the thing is that I came around this film, The conformist. Perhaps you have heard of it, perhaps not. The thing is that it completely blew my mind. It is an incredibly beautiful, full of stunning, arresting visuals and patterns film. Although I didn’t quite have the opportunity of going to the cinema (I watched it on my computer on some weird webpage), it was still an astonishing experience.

Bernardo Bertolucci is a widely recognized master of cinema. He is best known for his later and more widely successful works such as The Dreamers and Last Tango in Paris. Despite the troubled aspects of his career, due to its blistering political statement and gorgeous cinematic technique there is another film worth talking about today. I am referring to another great achievement, which is one of his earliest, most influential film: The conformist. The Conformist is a 1970 political drama film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, whose screenplay is based on the 1951 novel Il conformista by Alberto Moravia. As a matter of fact, the film has been cited by major directors from the Coen brothers to Francis Ford Coppola as a significant influence in their own work. 

One of The Conformist strengths resides in the use of modern architecture and art deco to represent the indeed fascist Italy of the 1930s. Nevertheless, it is not just about that. Rather, it’s about how to build a deep narrative using all the elements of cinema to tell an unforgettable story. Bertolucci combines a perfect aesthetic with a deep emphasis on composition, design, and camerawork to slowly build a devastating portrait of a conformist, a man whose personality allowed fascism to flourish.


Based on Alberto Moravia’s novel and set in 1938, The Conformist is starred by Jean-Louis Trintignant as a tormented middle-class Italian intellectual marrying a “mindless beauty” and setting out to be the perfect fascist – to liberate the guilt coming from his latent homosexuality and his father’s insanity. He hopefully believes fascism and a marriage will give him the appearance of normalcy he seeks. Volunteering as an assassin for Mussolini’s secret police, he’s dispatched to Paris to kill a liberal, who happens to be his old university professor. Fashionably for its time, the film attempts to reconcile Marx and Freud. 

Marcello’s nature

“The Conformist is a beautiful portrait of this psychological need to conform and be ‘normal’ at the social level, in general, and the political level, in particular.”

Takis Fotopoulos, political philosopher, about The conformist. Source: Wikipedia

Any other film would focus on the obvious question of whether Marcello will be morally bankrupt enough to kill the professor. But although Bertolucci intentionally turns this uncertainty into the apparent central question, it’s not. In fact, the central point of the film is Marcello’s willingness to become “normal”. He will do whatever it takes -commit to an ideology, an emotion, or to an identity, (join the fascists in his case)- just to be “normal”. The film analyses the nature of both conformism and fascism. Marcello Clerici is a bureaucrat, cultivated and intellectual but hugely influenced by an intense need to be ‘normal’ and to belong to whatever is the current dominant socio-political group. He grew up in an upper class and dysfunctional family, and he suffered a major childhood sexual trauma and gun violence episode. Clerici will sacrifice anything to building a supposedly  “normal life” and to forget his burdens. This is why he accepts to kill his own professor and his professor’s mesmerizing wife, with whom he ends up being in love with. On top of that, Bertolucci also insists on lowering the fascists impulsed by their own interests such as Marcello to the same level of fascists impulsed by conviction and honest passion in the movement. 

Use of light and space

Marcello shockingly and sadly realizes that this morally bankrupt approach has been built on self-deception all along. His will to sacrifice everything to commit to fascism resides on his failure in life. However, we are not as shocked as he is, due to The Conformist’s entire visual, cinematic, and aesthetic. The film’s aesthetic photograph, based in the use of light and space or architecture, expresses ideas and reflections clearer than anything that’s actually taking place on screen.  

Regarding light, Bertolucci takes inspiration from German Expressionism; with its strange shapes and the shadow and light contrast. This game of light and darkness happened to indicate Marcello’s internal war with himself. Besides,  the use of horizontal and vertical shadows, as well as barred windows, trees and architecture, and occasionally literal bars frames characters in prisons. This filmmaking lesson is perfectly reflected in the scene where the professor, using the Plato’s cave analogy, confronts Marcello’s dark nature. Shadow and light is as important in the analogy as it is in the scene.

About the spaces, they decided to film in actual fascist Italian architecture and to use deep colour contrasts -from fully washed-out neutrals to vibrant primary colours. More specifically, Bertolucci chose some locations of the EUR District in Rome, created in the late 1930s for the Esposizione Universale di Roma by Benito Mussolini to celebrate twenty years of fascism. The use of fascist architecture achieves to of course contextualize the story and to visually make characters look insignificant in comparison to its grandiosity. For instance, there is a scene where the young Marcello goes to visit his father in the asylum, accompanied by his mother where architecture plays a huge part -in fact, this scene id the picture i chose for the home page for the blog-. In this case, Bertolucci here has reinvented the Palace of the Congresses, made by Adalberto Libera and located in the EUR District, as a place for insane people, maybe to show that fascist architecture  was insane, too. Bertolucci chose rationalist architecture for its outlines, clean shapes with the intention of creating similarities between the building and the soul of Marcello. 

The film is a perfect example of how architecture can tell a story, much better than the plot itself. The film plays with the meaning of the composition in a spectacular way. There is an obvious relationship between architecture and Marcello’s psychology. Straight shapes and edges, contrast of colours and the use of light in the architecture shown in the film in the perfect reflection of Marcello’s confrontation between his trauma and his necessity, derived from self-deception, to be “normal”, a conformist. This film is architecture.

Plato scene. Source: Vox

Final thoughts

In the subtlety to reveal Marcello’s nature and Bertolucci’s leftist ideals and critique of fascism resides the magnificence of this film. Architecture and light perfectly carry with the weight of the plot in the film. And that’s exactly why The Conformist is the one Bertolucci film you shouldn’t miss.

Finally, I really recommend an article by Interior about the architecture in one scene I mentioned earlier, the one where Marcello visits his father. And also, I leave below access to a post that follows the locations of the film.

Bibliography and image sources