nthposition online magazine

Three Films: Bernardo Bertolucci and the Fascist Mind

by Robert Philbin

[ filmreviews ]

"Like me, the people who make up this cosmopolitan community had been very politically engaged twenty or thirty years previously; but, out of despair, they decided to abandon their political dreams at a certain moment and seek refuge far from the vulgar crowd, at the top of a hill, overlooking a unique landscape whose incredible beauty inspired the Tuscan painters of the 14th and 15th centuries." - Bernardo Bertolucci, discussing his film Stealing Beauty in 1997

 

Modernist politics falls into two broadly amorphous camps, the Left and the Right, usually uncompromising perspectives revolving around any economic-political status quo. The Left, gaining little from the status quo, pushes for change, to move off some imaginary center; while the Right, resistant to the unknown, craving conformity and wealth, pushes back. This is enlightenment thinking reduced to Hegelian-Marxist simplicity: a persistent dialectic clarifying the common state, from which we like to think "progress" or an "arc of progress" results over time. The rich get richer, suppressed minorities gain wider civil rights, the middle class surges forward, or so we think. But, as the 20th century so ruthlessly demonstrated, this "arc of progress" is very slow indeed, often inequitable and costly, in terms of human life.

The modernist dialect leads as easily to totalitarianism - a fascist state of mind, regardless of the political system. Bred in anxiety and fear, totalitarianism arises from both the Left and the Right. So, while the rich get richer and the suppressed move incrementally toward expanded civil liberty in relatively free states, millions of others end up dead. The result is Franco's Spain, totalitarianism of the habit-addicted Right responding to intimations of chaos; or Castro's Cuba, totalitarianism of the romantic Left opposing a US client police state. How do we come to understand the totalitarian mind? As a natural craving for order in a transitional world? As a pathology bred of elitism and power? [1]

The 1970s saw the acceleration of social movement in the United States, the push of the Left, activated during the sixties in opposition to cold war politics, followed by the explosion of resistance against US involvement in Indochina. By the end of that war in 1973, almost 60,000 Americans had been killed, another 300,000 wounded, with about a million Vietnamese soldiers and four million civilians dead. Growing awareness of human rights, particularly African American, feminist, and gay rights, as well as environmentalism, pushed the decade to more liberal possibilities socially, while Watergate "scandals" raised the specter of an "imperial presidency", a concentration of power viewed as an onerous drift toward an American totalitarianism.

Those were progressive times indeed and some have argued the core of the current "neoconservative" movement in the Right is a reaction against the liberalism of that time, primarily by men who were themselves disconnected from cultural conflicts. Some had "other priorities", for example, while others were able to outmaneuver the draft or war resistance and avoid personal conflicts through educational opportunities, wealth, and political contacts. There is nothing new about the avoidance of self sacrifice and danger by some potential leaders of course, but one result of the American neoconservative movement in the postmodern era has been the US invasion and subsequent failure of the war in Iraq which, to many informed observers, has become a mirror image of the US failures in Indochina. This at least implies that cultural disconnection, or self-delusion, much like ignorance of history, dooms some elites to potentially endless cycles of failure.

Like Stalinists and Maoists of the past, this reaction from the neoconservative Right can be viewed as an attempt to revise history, to rewrite the past along some imagined, ideological narrative. History is ultimately relative and subjective. The neoconservative movement has been viewed as a uniquely American claim to the future, as if some "end of history" has arrived and the United States is the economic-political engine that will drive the future for all humanity. This implies an elitist global hegemony that borders on totalitarian, particularly when military action in a world of vague "anti-terrorism" becomes the main instrument for driving that future in "a clash" with foreign cultures. Finding some relative understanding of the abuse of power by elites is as valid through art, as through the current state of science on the subject, and the most immediate art of our time, is film.

The most interesting films of the 1970s explored various aspects of the existential antihero in varying totalitarian milieus: Terrence Malick's Badlands, Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Stanley Kubrick'sA Clockwork Orange, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Roman Polanski's Chinatown, Michelangelo Antonioni'sThe Passenger, and Bernardo Bertolucci's three great films, The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, andNovecento, each of which examines perspectives on the human condition menaced by totalitarianism, each offering a particular insight into the fascist mind.

Born in Parma, Italy, the province of Giuseppe Verdi, in 1941, Bertolucci is a product of World War II Europe and everything that might imply. But he's also a poet, the son of a poet, film critic and friend of controversial filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, so Bernardo's intellectual development would have been along Hegelian-Marxist lines - he says he is a Marxist, he was a communist [2] - and of course he would have socially experienced the residue of Italian Fascism from an early age. In fact, Bertolucci was so absorbed with fascist aspects of his past, that in a five-year period, he wrote and directed three great films exploring his Marxist-Freudian approach to fascism from two perspectives: the reactionary Right, grounded in a ruling elite, namely landed European aristocracy, contrasted against the romantic Left in revolt against authority, usually with grand expectations for the future.

 

La Conformista (1970)

"Like most Communist intellectuals in Europe I am condemned to be divided. I have a split personality, and the real contradiction within me is that I cannot quite synchronize my heart and my brain." - Bernardo Bertolucci, 1988

 

The conformist, one Marcello Clerici, effete son of decadent intellectuals, strides jauntily through the modernist architectural maze of 1938 fascist Italy, confident that class, education and innate superiority will coincide with the pragmatism of Mussolini's government, to provide him a career as a public servant. Clerici is to become a secret police officer, sworn to find and eliminate nonconformists. The narrative explores Freudian connections in Clerici's life and unfolds in a series of flashbacks as Clerici (brilliantly played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) is driven by an accomplice to some destination which we gradually discover will be a murder scene.

In his mind, Clerici visits his drug addicted mother and her Korean driver and lover; then his father, a violent intellectual, a former government interrogator and torturer, confined to a mental institution. Clerici needs them to sign papers so he can marry. Marcello is "not merely a man, he is an angel," his mother-in-law tells him, and he will honeymoon in Paris with his new wife, whom he describes as "mediocre, a mound of petty ideas, full of petty ambitions, she's all bed and kitchen."

Clerici carries flowers to his fiancée who says she must go to a fortune teller "to learn everything I can" about him. His goal, he says, is simply to be normal. To conform, to fit in, to succeed. Then another memory surfaces, a homosexual encounter in his early teens, which ended with him murdering the family chauffeur, an incident that is the source of Clerici's profound Freudian self doubt, and social alienation.

Solicitous of authority, Clerici courts and wins an assignment to infiltrate the circle of his former university philosophy professor, now living in exile in Paris. In another revealing scene sequence, Clerici is summoned by the black-shirted secret service commander. He encounters a crazy prostitute, whom he embraces tenderly in the only moving emotional moment Clerici shows in the film. Then he meets the black shirt commander who gives him a gun and tells him his mission is to kill Clerici's professor and intellectual mentor. In a startling nonconformist moment, Clerici points the gun at the commander, then at the opposite wall, then presses the pistol against his own head. The moment resolves when Clerici exclaims, "What! where's my hat? I've lost my hat!" - he lowers the gun and scampers out of the room like a reprimanded servant. The absurdity of the fascist mind, subservient to authority, the mind of a murderer is made clear: Clerici is crazy.

In these nicely filmed moments Clerici faces the emotional vacuity of his life, his need but inability to love within social norms, as well as the realization that his career game has become reality: his existential options are to accept the mission, kill his mentor, or destroy himself. Marcello is weak, malleable, a murderer who is afraid of guns. He simply and willingly conforms to the ideological status quo. He adjusts to the fascist architecture, the art of the monumental, the deco wallpaper, empty church sacraments - he fits in anywhere and all of it is lushly photographed to resemble a cold geometric cage by master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.

This is a beautiful film, sensually visual with exceptional performances - Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli and Dominique Sanda are upbeat, even farcical, which contrasts with the intense reality of the plot and creates a strange, viscerally dark psychology to what might otherwise border on melodrama. Clerici is a repressed homosexual murderer, willing to kill to simply fit into a world from which he cannot escape. All of this creates an odd and sustained tension that builds to the famous forest sequence, one of the most chillingly crafted assassinations on film.

The scene builds, shot by shot, from the creaking of pines trees in a winter wind: Clerici sits in his car, the professor steps out of his car, leaving his wife, to investigate a faked accident on the road ahead. Sunlight slants through the pines as the assassins move in from the mist for the kill. They stab the professor, one by one, blade by blade, and as he crumbles to his knees, like Caesar, they close in on him, each blow drawing more blood, until he is dead.

The professor's wife bolts from the car to Clerici in back seat of his car. She pounds on the window, presses her face against the icy glass, realizing with growing horror that Clerici is a cold blooded killer and coward - Bastard! - she shouts at him, and then runs off into the slanted sunlight and pine wood to be run down and executed. The terrifying, revealing moment when the beautiful Dominique Sanda, presses her hands and face against the car window and screams silently at Clerici's alien and cold visage, is unforgettable.

Then Clerici's chauffeur-accomplice steps out the car. He goes to the side of the road and urinates: "Cowards, homosexuals and Jews are all the same," he mutters, meaning Clerici. "If it was up to me, I would stand them up against the wall, and shoot them all, myself." The professor's wife is shot. The wind blows, the pine trees creak overhead, as the killers cough and move off to their cars. The murder is done, unremarked by nature, ignored by Clerici.

Bertolucci uses sex as character, a motif throughout his films. Sexuality is an assertion of dominance and control in The Conformist, manipulation with each encounter erotic, but oddly lacking emotion. Sex becomes an exploration of unconscious motivations for each character - Clerici's traditional fun-loving wife, can't wait to have babies, while the bisexual power and idiosyncrasies of the professor's wife, the childhood chauffeur's scary pedophilia, indicate decadence among elites, another persistent theme in Bertolucci's films.

In an interview in 1972, Bertolucci commented that he altered the idea of Destiny or Fate (in the sense of classic tragedy) in the original novel to fit the idea of the unconscious, or a Freudian understanding of Clerici's motivations in the film. He said, "Clerici is really a very complex character, searching to conform because of his great and violent anti-conformism." In other words, Clerici seeks conformity because he is by nature a non-conformist, an elitist, repressed homosexual, and a murderer.

One never gets the sense that Clerici is committed to Fascism - any prevailing ideology will do - he's rather more attuned to absolute class divisions among the bourgeoisie. He is loyal to his class origins, even as he recognizes they are the source of his self loathing. It's also important to note, as Bertolucci said himself, the point is not to equate fascism and homosexuality:
"This is really too simple. Homosexuality is just an element in Clerici's character. He feels himself different because of his secret homosexuality which is never expressed, yet always inside of him. When you feel 'different', you have to make a choice: to act with violence against the existing power or, like most people, to ask for the protection of this power. Clerici chooses to ask for the protection of this power. He becomes a fascist to have this protection that he needs." [3]

The murdered professor lectured Clerici as a student about Plato - shadows on the back of the cave cast by flickering fire light: the myth of Platonic Utopianism based on ideas, a dreamed ideological state of perfect order, based on the normal man, the normal family, the normal group, "illuminates the fascist mind." Bertolucci seem to be saying class is an illusion, mirrors and smoke, pretense, a social strategy based on the ability to buy an education steeped in the "wisdom of the past," a past which is revered as "classical," an elitist trick to promote the narcissistic self and construct an ideology to justify ruling elites.

There is a short epilogue to The Conformist: Years later, Mussolini is overthrown, his likeness, a giant sculpted head is dragged through the streets behind a speeding motorcycle. Clerici plays with his daughter in a tenement bedroom. The walls are papered with blue skies and billowing white clouds, an optimistic future awaits after the fall of fascism.

Clerici, the confirmed atheist, teaches his young daughter to pray: "Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee, Blessed is the fruit of thy womb," they pray together. Outside, the communists march through the night streets and Clerici goes out to join them. "I want to see how a dictator falls," he tells his wife. In a dark underpass, he comes upon his childhood chauffeur, the one he thought he had killed years ago. Clerici breaks down as he identifies the impoverished man, and then he accuses him of killing the professor - "he murdered Professor Qadri! He is a Fascist! Listen to me! Everyone listen to me! He is a Fascist! A Fascist! and the murderer of Professor Qadri!" Clerici screams madly at every passer-by. Then he calms himself, he sits down by a fire, surrounded by misfits, and stares back over his shoulder for a long moment. He looks back into the camera, with a cold resolution. The conformist survives, ready to adapt, lizard like, to whatever the future might bring.

 

Ultimo Tango a Parigi (1972)

"Obscene content offensive to public decency... presented with obsessive self-indulgence, catering to the lowest instincts of the libido, dominated by the idea of stirring unchecked appetites for sexual pleasure, permeated by scurrilous language... accompanied off screen by sounds, sighs and shrieks of climax pleasure." - Court in Bologna that banned Last Tango in Paris in Italy, and exiled Bernardo Bertolucci for four years.

 

If Jean-Louis Trintignant's Marcello Clerici is the epitome of the right-wing conformist - the mutable, amoral man, ready for acceptance and success by any means - Marlon Brando's character Paul, in Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, is the definitive nonconformist existential hero of the Left: the bohemian with totalitarian instincts who would bring down the status quo, starting with God, by sheer emotion and willpower.

In the film's opening shot, Storaro's camera pirouettes down on Brando beneath an elevated train in the Passy section of Paris, covering his ears as a train blasts by overhead: "Fucking God!" he screams, and we know this film will probe into existential confrontations between the individual and society. A young woman passes Brando, as the train speeds by, and the story begins.

As the title implies, Last Tango is about death and, by implication, how mortality redefines, ultimately reinforces, the politics of existence in any status quo. The plot is simple: two people, Paul, a 45-year old man, and Jeanne, a 20-year old woman, meet while looking at an apartment for rent on Rue Jules Verne in Paris. It is the early 1970s, and Paris, like London and New York, is "swinging." The two are drawn to each other and into an anonymous, libidinous love affair, initiated by something close to rape. They share no personal histories, not even names, "no names here," Paul insists, "I don't want to know nothing about you," even as they draw each other into an exploration of sex which moves from erotic, to sadomasochistic, a kind of gender fascism, and ultimately murder.

We watch Paul's evolution from a romantic beat existentialist into a fascist state of mind, anger and control, while Jeanne, daughter of a recently deceased military officer, evolves from a young woman, open to possibility, into a murderer. This connection between sex and death, eros and thanatos, is as old as myth and civilization. As Freud theorized late in his career, the clash of these conflicting instincts compels humans to engage in dangerous and destructive behaviors which could lead to death, while the lure or fear of death is offset by procreation and the sex drive.

Paul returns to his apartment in the rundown hotel he and wife owned and operated. She has just committed suicide and the inexplicable act has thrown him into crisis and despair. A maid is cleaning up the bathroom where the wife had cut her wrists. As she cleans, she retraces the blood evidence with a soiled rag, narrating the dead woman's every move. The maid tells Paul of an earlier police interrogation - they made her re-enact the suicide, performing the last actions of the dead woman. "They enjoy playing around with blood." The maid says. "They treated me like dirt." She tells us, as she told the police, that Paul is a former American boxer, an actor, a bongo player, a journalist in Japan.

"Why don't you turn the water off." Paul says, ignoring her.

Meanwhile, Jeanne is engaged to an earnest, immature filmmaker who explores her past in a film he's making about her. We learn she is a product of the ultimate status quo, the French bourgeoisie. Her maid Olympia, Jeanne tells us, "is a compendium of domestic virtues: faithful, admiring, and racist." Jeanne's father, a military officer killed in Algiers, has trained the family dog "to recognize Arabs, by their scent." Caught in a moment of nostalgia, Jeanne talks about her past, "it's like a village here, everyone knows everyone," she says. Like Paul, she's unsure of the future, indecisive in the moment about choosing the safe life - "my best friend, she married the pharmacist and has two children." Or another life, an extension of the secret world she and Paul are creating in the empty apartment on Rue Jules Verne. "Growing old is a crime." Jeanne says. She remembers her father for the camera: "The colonel had green eyes, and shiny boots. I worshiped him. He was so handsome in his uniform."

"What a steaming pile of horseshit," Paul says in the next cut.

This theme of family history connects Paul and Jeanne and moves their sexual Tango, and the narrative forward. Jeanne is open, unformed, questioning, testing bourgeois values, particularly the nature of sex and security. Will she move away from her history, or conform to the order of her mother's life, the world of the colonel's adoring widow? Is her affair with Paul indicative of some bohemian future, to be explored for years, or merely a passing adventure with a domineering, older man, reminiscent of her father, on her way to marrying the fawning young filmmaker?

In the apartment, Paul tells her she's a "good old fashioned kind of girl," but she's offended by this, and shouts at him, "I prefer to be a whore!" Paul's family, he tells us, was dysfunctional - two abusive, anti-social alcoholics, one a "whore monger," the other embarrassingly crazy, two failed mid-western American farmers, an ominous contrast to Jeanne's sheltered, orchestrated suburban childhood. So we see it is the nature of sex, gender conformity, and family in society that Last Tango calls into question, and Bertolucci's modernist inquiries reflect the "generation gap" of the Sixties and Seventies, which opened deeper social themes of race, gender, and sexuality, not to mention wars, like France in Algeria and the US in Indochina.

In the famous "butter scene," referred to by the Italian court above, Paul painfully sodomizes Jeanne, as he forces her to repeat these words:
"I'm gonna tell you about the family. That holy institution meant to breed virtue in savages. I want you to repeat it after me. I want you to repeat it after me. Holy family, church of good citizens, children are tortured until they tell their first lie. Where the will is broken by repression. Where freedom is assassinated."

This is the roar of the abused child abusing another woman, not his mother. The idea that sex is a matter of power and control, as opposed to procreation and family, is Paul's point. And something changes in Jeanne after this scene. She hardens, becomes more her father's daughter, as she lures Paul to a record player, where she knows he'll receive a strong electric shock when he turns it on. He jolts with sharp pain. "Are you happy now?" he says.

Her young filmmaker asks Jeanne to marry him, she agrees, and informs her mother in a scene that turns the narrative. Her mother is packing away her father's personal effects, preparing to ship them to their country home. The mother holds his boots fondly. "Of course, I'm not sending the boots to the country. I'm keeping them with me. I get strange shivers when I touch them. All these military things never age." Then Jeanne picks up her father's pistol. "When I was little, it seemed really heavy when Papa taught me to shoot." She says. Her mother responds, "In a respectable household, it's useful to have a weapon."

Jeanne tries on her new wedding dress, then runs away from her friends, in the rain, to the apartment to meet Paul again. She tells him she loves him. That he is the man who will protect her and keep her safe. He baths her and makes her perform an obscenity to prove her love for him. She does it. "Are you going to do all of this for me?" He asks. "Yes, yes, and more than that!" She says declaring her love for him.

In the next scene Paul confronts the corpse of his wife Rosa, laid out in a coffin. He says no matter how long he lives, he will never understand her. "Our marriage was nothing more than a foxhole for you." He calls her a litany of angry, vile names, and finally breaks down weeping and sobbing: "Rosa... Oh, God! I'm sorry Rosa I don't know why you did it. I'd do it too, if I knew how. I just don't know how. I have to... I have to find a way."

Jeanne brings her boyfriend to the apartment on rue Jules Verne and they joke about their future together like young Marxist students: if they have a son, he'll be called "Fidel, as in Castro," she says. But I'd like a girl too, he says. We'll call her "Rosa. As in Rosa Luxemburg." But this is just a joke: they are not revolutionaries. Then he turns serious: "We have to be adults now, we're not children anymore." "Adults? That's awful," she responds. "We have to be calm, serious, logical, measured, level-headed. And... Adults face up to problems." He asserts. "Yes, yes. Yes, yes," she says.

As she's moving along the street from the apartment, Paul appears behind her. She tells him it's over between them."It's over, and then it begins again." He says. He is changed now, he's buried his past and now in love with her. He tells her who he is, about his wife and the hotel. "My wife killed herself." he says, moves off, he follows her, and they end up in a Tango bar, and a dance contest is underway. He orders champagne, "You know, the Tango is a rite. Do you understand "rite"? And you must watch the legs of the dancers."

He tells her he loves her and wants to live with her. "In your flophouse?" she responds sardonically. He says he loves her and what does it matter where they live. "No." She says. They dance and wreck havoc among the Tango dancers, violating all the rites of the Tango, ridiculing the ritual. They're chased out of the bar. It's finished, she tells him out on the street, "we're never going to see each other again! Never!" She runs away from him.

She has ended the relationship, but Paul is liberated now, redeemed in his mind, and he won't let her go: "Look, when something is finished, it just begins again." He insists. He chases her through the streets, past the Dorsey Hotel where Marcello and his wife honeymooned so happily in The Conformist. Jeanne screams at him, telling him it's over, pleading with him to leave her alone. He refuses, laughs at her, she starts to call out for help. In a remarkably filmed sequence, Paul chases her up the stairs to her mother's apartment, Jeanne is ascending in the caged art deco elevator, while he's running in circles around her all the way up the spiral staircase.

She rushes to her apartment, screaming for help and slams the door behind her, but he pushes it open and shoves his way in. She backs away, I'll call the police, she says, panicked now. Paul puts on her father's military hat, "How do you prefer your hero - my love - sunny side up, or over easy?" he jokes boyishly. "I love you, and I want to live with you." He vows. She goes to her mother's buffet drawer, pulls out her father's pistol. Paul approaches her. "I wanna know your name," he says. "Jeanne," she says calmly, as she shoots him. Paul stumbles out to the balcony with a view of Paris in the background, "But the children. The children. The children," he mutters.

The final shot of the film is a slow pull-back revealing Paul's body slumped on the balcony. He began in the opening shot raging against the injustice of God and mortality under a train trestle, and ends up sprawled in a fetal position on a balcony overlooking Paris. The camera shot ends on Jeanne as she stares out, continually repeating her lines, as if rehearsing for the police investigation surely to follow:
"I don't know who he is. He followed me in the street. He tried to rape me. He's a lunatic. I don't know what he's called. I don't know his name. I don't know who he is. He tried to rape me. I don't know who he is. A lunatic. I don't know his name."

We are quite certain Jeanne will escape any prosecution for murdering Paul, but why should this be so? Because we know instinctively that he has transgressed too many social boundaries; he is a gender fascist, who has violated too many social rites. Like a lover overwhelmed with passion, he has violated common sense. His last tango was indecent and it has brought him to the balcony of the apartment of the Colonel's dedicated widow, the heart of the status quo, and the gendarmes of Paris will likely not be persuaded to investigate the matter further.

A disturbingly paradoxical ending to this riveting story of an American ex-patriot in Paris, the antihero adrift in the staid world of the bourgeoisie. In a theatrical sense, Last Tango in Paris marks the end of a lineage of virile, post-World War II American males, personified by Marlon Brando, from Streetcar, through Zapata, Wild One, On the Waterfront, to Godfather. With impunity, Jeanne has not only destroyed Paul, but a concept of masculinity embodied in the male antihero trapped in the existential quagmire of cultural transition.

Paul is the logical end to the romantic antihero. He is a man who would change the status quo by prerogative and by force, in the bohemian tradition of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Gauguin, or Jean Genet, only to be brought down, ultimately, by his vulnerability to the comforts of love. As opposed to Marcello Clerici, Paul is a genuine non-conformist, an existential hero undone, like Camus' L'Étranger, by the accumulated weight of social normality.

So Bertolucci has created interesting dimensions and useful insights into the fascist mind: the weak, the fawning and murderous Marcello, defender of the status quo; and Paul, the male force of nature, a romantic of the Left, pushing the limits of social acceptance. And Jeanne, the young woman faced with a choice between her past and her future, accepts status, and kills the man who would upset her bourgeois comfort. When in doubt, find comfort in the past. She is not a revolutionary, but playing at revolution, because, Bertolucci tells us, that is precisely what young people of the middle class do.

How do these extreme points of view develop? The characters share oddly abusive childhoods, which result in difficult sexual and personal relationships throughout their lives, as well as an inability to accept normality. One welcomes any authority in the name of conformity; the other rejects all authority in the pursuit of individual validation. One finds comfort in the codes and rites of conformity, the other challenges these as illusions designed to "turn children into liars." How do these extremes rise naturally in any culture? Bertolucci probes these questions further, and expands his exploration of the modernist political dialect with his next film, his grand, sweeping epic, Novecento.

 

Novecento (1976)

"Novecento means 'the twentieth century' in Italian, it means an entire era, more than simply the year 1900." - Bernardo Bertolucci, 2006

 

This beautifully produced five and half hour film clarifies the origins of Bertolucci's political dialectic, illuminating the impact of modernism on the evolving class and political wars in Italy in the first half of the last century. The "progressive future" anticipated in early Italian modernism - the rise of the machine, the speed of change overwhelming tradition, the approach of strong centralized power - results in Bertolucci's view of fascism as a government representing the elite, while suppressing the majority. Novencento narrates his ideas through three generations of two families, one the land owning Padrone, (literally, "owner of dogs"), the other working peasants, the Contadino (small farmer).

The narrative opens with the births of Alfredo and Olmo, future Padrone, and Contadino, on the same day (Verdi's death) in 1901. Presumably this date marks the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of modernism (it also introduces an operatic motif which returns in the trial of Alfredo, a powerful aria sequence in the end of the film). The first generation defines the status quo - a romanticized balance between the two classes, based on fear. The Padrone, Burt Lancaster, careful to temper his control over peasant field workers, led by Contadino Sterling Hayden (in a great performance).

While each appears to respect the other and conform to a uneasy status quo that generates wealth for one and a subsistence existence for the Contadino, we see contrasts between the two which indicate a troubled future: Hayden eats with his family of forty rough peasants around a long dinner table with easy argument, laughter and emotion, reinforcing the fundamental sharing and nurturing of family tradition. Meanwhile, Lancaster dines alone, apart from his son, grandson Alfredo, daughter in law and her sister and niece. They are separated by an "ocean of shit," he tells his favorite, the young Alfredo. The Padrone plays with his guns, sinking deeper into dementia. Both old men sense change coming, and fear the future.

(These two conflicting social classes echo the contrasting family backgrounds of Paul, the son of alcoholic farmers in Midwestern America, and Jeanne, the colonel's daughter, in Last Tango in Paris, as well as the decadent upper class family of Marcello Clerici in The Conformist. Bertolucci would later explore similar relationships in non-political circumstances, but in these three works, family is shaped by economic class, their relationship to power, and ultimately politics.)

The aging Padrone sinks deeper into depression, eventually molests a young girl in a cow shed, and then hangs himself. The peasant grandfather dies years later propped up against a tree watching Olmo and Alfredo at play. Olmo's definitive act of bravado is to lay between railroad tracks as a train, symbol of onrushing history, blasts over him. Alfredo will later find the courage to mimic Olmo's bravery, which is echoed again in the odd last shot in Novencento.

The next generation, Alfredo's father and the growing Olmo, react to the arrival of modernism in the form of farm machinery. The new Padrone adds machines to the farm, increasing efficiency and threatening Contadino jobs. The peasants react by striking. Alfredo's father attempts to use the government - police and military - to break the peasant socialist movement. For example, in a wonderful scene, the Italian army arrives to break up some striking peasants who have gathered on a road near the Padrone's fields. As the mounted Carabinier approach, the peasant women on the road begin singing defiantly. They sit down and then lay down flat on their backs, still singing, as the horses charge forward. At the last moment, the calvary pulls up, refusing to trample the woman. They turn and leave, momentarily defeated by the courage of these singing women. Bertolucci wonderfully connects music, particularly folk, dance, and opera directly to the Contadino and their love for the earth.

The Padrone is furious at the soldiers' reluctance to attack the peasant women. He curses the government for weakness and fires his shot gun at the women on the road. Later, Alfredo's father calls a secret meeting of the landowners at the local church and they agree, with the blessing of the priest, to fund a private army of Black Shirts to terrorize the growing peasant movement.

Alfredo, awkwardly played by Robert DeNiro, refuses to be part of the fascist plan. As a child he preferred to play with Olmo and the peasants rather than his own family and he seems trapped, as he ages, between the two worlds. He either sides with the Contadino, or lives the decadent drug and sex life of the upper class, rather than become the community leader his father expects. Olmo is sent to war, while Alfredo, the fop, wears a uniform and sword and pretends to be an officer. Alfredo soon leaves to cavort with his decadent uncle in Paris, where he meets his future wife Ada. Olmo returns home, hardened by war, to work the fields.

With the death of his father, Alfredo returns to accept his role as Padrone, heir to the family fortune. This is his coming of age as a fascist too. He puts on the fur coat his father wore when firing on the peasant women earlier, and he encounters Olmo in his father's study with his father's gun. His father died in the cowshed, Olmo tells him, his last words were, "my legs feel weak." Alfredo claims his father's fine coat, while Olmo leaves with his father's symbol of power, the Padrone's gun.

As with the conformist Marcello, there are intimations that Alfredo, like his uncle, is a repressed homosexual with no firm sense of self or genuine intellectual development. It is as if Alfredo remains powerless through this narrative because he doesn't know (or care) to take action that might threaten his social status. He reprimands Attila, the Black Shirt farm manager his father hired, but even this act results more from family politics than a sense of social responsibility. He has the chance to send Attila away; but he doesn't, so the fascist child murderer and the local priest can delight together in Alfredo's wedding. Even his new wife Ada wants the fascist sent away. "They are like our relatives, despite the color of their shirts, " Alfredo says. "You won't have to see them after the wedding."

This lack of character development slows the narrative pace of Novencento, throws off the polemics between Alfredo and Olmo, and unnecessarily highlights the savagery of Attila, acted with chilling menace by Donald Sutherland. The peasants organize to protect their jobs giving political legitimacy to socialism, and eventually communism in Northern Italy. The landowners invest in the Fascist movement which rises across the country to protect their interests and suppress the labor class. "Mussolini has won, Italy has really changed," Alfredo says. Olmo's wife, a schoolteacher and leader of the women's resistance, dies in childbirth, while Alfredo's wife turns to drugs and leaves him childless.

The Fascists are eventually defeated and the peasants take revenge on Attila and his wife, Alfredo's cousin, with pitch forks in a vengeance sequence following the liberation of Italy by the allied forces. Alfredo is captured in his dining room by a youth with a rifle and brought to Olmo. A trial is held and Alfredo is accused of crimes by the various peasants. Olmo intervenes to help Alfredo: "The Padrone is dead, but Alfredo must live as proof that Padrone, as authority, is dead." Then three peasant men sing arias in a moving sequence, which connects to the opening and Verdi's death, praising the rise of the Contadino and their natural stewardship over the land. The ultimate fruits of modernism and socialism in Italy.

Their dialectical struggle continues, of course, right to the vivid final scene, which finds Alfredo and Olmo, now old men well into their seventies, pushing and shoving each other along a country road. They whack each other with their thin canes, then Olmo escorts Alfredo to the railroad tracks. Alfredo lays down across the tracks, his head on the rail as another train, engine of history, approaches in the distance. As the train blasts by, Bertolucci jump cuts to the young Alfredo laying between the rails, hands covering his face, as the train rushes over him. Like his grandfather, Alfredo is a suicide -- a tired, sympathetic remnant of Bertolucci's superfluous class, while Olmo, harden warrior, looks out, unperturbed, prepared for any future.

When he made these wonderful, illuminating films, Bernardo Bertolucci was in touch with his historic moment, articulating issues which would transition from the modern to the postmodern world, carrying these dynamic polemics into the future. We can trace Bertolucci's characters over time: Olmo and Paul, forces of nature, like peasants of the Left pushing against Alfredo and Jeanne in different historic contexts. While Attila and Marcello, linked as murderers and Fascists, advance totalitarianism by simple conformity. By serving the elites, they become pseudo-elites, they gain status, if only in their minds. In this postmodern, global era, these dynamics shift, relative to the economic and political context, and, as Milan Kundera points out, the status quo is now recognized as in process itself - "the status quo in motion" - so categories like,"Left" and "Right" also become relative to the political context:
"All at once, being comfortable with the status quo was the same thing as being comfortable with History on the move! Which meant a person could be both progressive and conformist, conservative and a rebel at the same time!"

 

Notes

I should note I use the terms "fascism" and "totalitarianism" colloquially and rather interchangeably. I'm not generally referring to the particularly Italian form of Fascism, as practiced by Mussolini for example. I use the term in the more general sense that any government (or political power base) inevitably drifts toward consolidation of power, ultimately seeking total power, or totalitarianism. This drift, or tendency, is what I mean by "fascist," "fascism," and so forth. So, for example, the kidnapping of a German citizen by US government officials, or the de-emphasis of FEMA priorities and budgets, while funding faith-based programs with public funds to consolidate political power bases, are all fascist tendencies by my use of the term.

 

1   The postmodern era is even more confusing, because the acceleration of history, caused by the technological revolution, demonstrates any status quo is in a state of permanent transition, which means the world is changing dynamically and unmanageably, with or without resistance from the left or the right. I call this new point of view, "postmodernism," but Novelist Milan Kundera, for example, calls the phenomenon, "antimodern modernism," which he summed up neatly in a recent New Yorker excerpt from his book, Curtain. A fundamental shift occurred in the 20th century, as Kundera notes:
"...until then mankind was divided in two - those who defended the status quo and those who sought to change it. Then History began to accelerate: whereas, in the past, man had lived continuously in the same setting, in a society that changed only very slowly, now the moment arrived when he suddenly began to feel History moving beneath his feet, like a rolling sidewalk; the status quo was in motion! All at once, being comfortable with the status quo was the same thing as being comfortable with History on the move! Which meant a person could be both progressive and conformist, conservative and a rebel at the same time!" [Milan Kundera, 'Die Weltliteratur', The New Yorker, January 8, 2007, p35] [Back]
2  Bernardo Bertolucci, statement on Marxism, communism [Back]
3  Collected Interviews, Bertolucci, The Conformist
Sadomasochism: sexual practices involving sadism and masochism: the gaining of sexual gratification by alternately or simultaneously enduring pain and causing pain to somebody else, or the acts that produce such gratification.
Last Tango In Paris Script - Dialogue Transcript
Freud: The life and death instincts [Back]