Contemporary Italian Cinema and Fascism

Memory, History, and Politics in the Films of Bernardo Bertolucci

Memory, Historical Awareness and Film

Over the course of the past decade the American cultural historian Robert Rosenstone has become one of the leading world figures in the field of film and history. Indeed, Rosenstone has been at the forefront of a new direction in historical studies, particularly as it concerns the relationship between film and history. Moving beyond traditional approaches which examine the history of film as art and industry, or which view films as texts reflecting their specific cultural contexts, Rosenstone has made a radical venture into a new historiographical realm : the use of film and other visual media as serious vehicles for thinking about our relationship with the past. The point of departure for Rosenstone is that film, not academic history, has the greatest impact on the forging of modern ‘memory’. Moreover, Rosenstone argues that historical film must be studied on its own terms, and not as it compares to written history. Film has a unique way of recounting the past and of re-constructing or ‘re-visioning’ the historical world, and it accomplishes this by employing rules, codes and strategies which are foreign to the text-based discipline of history as traditionally understood and practiced by adherents to the neo-Rankean historiographical tradition (Rosenstone 1995a : 199).

‘Memory’ is a very ambiguous term within the humanities and social sciences, and theorists of cultural memory have given it a myriad of working definitions. In the first decades of the twentieth century, for example, Maurice Halbwachs, the colleague of Bloch and Febvre at Strasburg in the 1920s, defined memory as a manifestation of social construction. According to Halbwachs, every society has a mémoire collective or “collective memory”, a kind of storehouse of experiences which gives a society both a sense of identity and purpose, as well as some indication of the possibilities that might exist for it in the future. Halbwachs drew a distinction between ‘memory’, which embraces similarities, and ‘history’, which focuses on differences. In his seminal study, he wrote that memory and history are in effect two contradictory ways of dealing with the past. In Halbwachs’s view, history starts when social memory and continuous tradition stop operating and dissolve. Furthermore, history is scholarship, and as such serves a select few, while the collective memory of the past is shared by the whole community. There is only one history, but there are as many collective memories as there are human communities. According to Halbwachs, historians aim at writing an objective and impartial universal history, whereas collective memories are normally restricted to the most recent past, not more than a lifetime’s length, and their validity is limited to the members who belong to a particular community (Halbwachs 1950).

Jan Assmann defined cultural memory as the “outer dimension of human memory” which embraces two different concepts : Erinnerungskultur or “memory culture” and Vergangenheitsbezug or “reference to the past” (Assmann1988a ; 1988b ; 1992 : 22 ; 1997 : 19). For Assmann, memory culture is the way a society ensures cultural continuity by preserving, with the help of cultural mnemonics, its collective knowledge from one generation to the next, rendering it possible for later generations to ‘reconstruct’ their cultural identity. Reference to the past, on the other hand, serves to reassure the members of a society of their collective identity and it supplies them with an awareness of their unity and singularity in time and space. In essence, reference to the past fashions a “consciousness of a collective past” by ‘creating’ a “shared or common past” (Assmann 1992 : 30-34 ; 1996 : 26f., 31).

Pierre Nora, perhaps the most authoritative cultural theorist writing in the field today, has postulated that modern societies which have come into being since the French Revolution of 1789 have lost the capacity for memory, and that in pre-industrial societies, memory, a “perpetually actual phenomenon”, has maintained an awareness of social identity as an “eternal present”. For Nora, modernity and a global awareness have brought the loss of this capacity for memory, and as a consequence the milieux de mémoire or “memory environment” has disappeared, leaving modern society with fragments of memory clinging to specific localities and objects, which are referred to as the lieux de mémoire or “memory places”. Nora’s massive study, which is a truly monumental collective endeavor involving many of France’s leading intellectuals, has concluded that memory is in decline and is becoming synonymous with ‘history’, which he has defined quite simply as a “cultural repository of functional and organizational myths”. To reconstruct memory, Nora advises that the task of the scholar is to “map the past time on the geographical present”, that is, to chronicle how ideas, places, images, stories, and rituals have been fused together into a “cultural edifice”, for it is the cultural edifice that gives citizens of the modern era the most approximate sense of the natural order of things (Nora 1989 : 7-25 ; Nora 1984-92).

Professional historians, of course, have closely monitored the work on memory by cultural theorists. Throughout the last decade historians have written extensively on such related topics as “social memory” (Fentress and Wickham 1992), “historical memory” (Le Goff 1992), “history as the art of memory” (Hutton 1993), “history as the phantasm of oblivion” (Geary 1994), “history constructed through traumatic memory” (Roth 1995), and “history as memories of symbols and myths” (Isnenghi 1996 ; 1997a ; and 1997b). Many important works have been produced specifically in reference to preserving and promoting national memory and identity through museums (Brandt 1994), commemorations (Gillis 1994), and memorials (Young and Young 1993 ; and Linenthal 1995). Other significant histories, particularly in the field of Holocaust studies, have argued authoritatively and persuasively that different forms of historical representation and memoralization not only affects the relationship between history and memory in a given community, but they form the constituent elements of a nation’s institutional dynamics and its political, social, and cultural discourse as a modern polity (Friedländer 1993 ; Lipstadt 1994 ; Young and Young 1994 ; Hoffman 2004). Certainly, there are historians who have been willing to acknowledge that “there is no sure method for ascertaining what constitutes collective memory on any given topic” (Walker : 188). “Memory”, one historian has conceded, is elusive, and, at times, undecipherable, for it is a “process and not a thing”, and like everything else, it “never stands still” (Young : 7-10). To be sure, most historians would agree that the task of unveiling memory does not automatically reveal the ‘truth’, and one historian, very closely employing the conceptual language of Nora, has written that memory, like history, is a socially fabricated discourse : “collective memory emerges as a construct of the political, social, and economic structures that condition, if they do not, in fact, determine, their production” (Sharman : 186). For the most part, however, historians have had great difficulty accepting the claims of cultural theorists in regard to memory and its relationship to history, and a significant critical literature has emerged in the field (Jenkins 1997 ; Bentley 1999). The difficulty becomes apparent immediately when one comes to appreciate that historians make a crucial distinction between ‘memory’, as variously defined by cultural theorists, and ‘historical awareness’, which is a conceptual and methodological framework for the study and pursuit of history as a text-based discipline (Tosh : 1-16).

Historical awareness, in the sense understood and applied by historicists or adherents to the neo-Rankean scholarly tradition rests on three fundamental premises, all of which can be traced back in time to the founding of the modern discipline in the mid nineteenth century (Gooch 1952 ; Stern 1970). The first, and most important, is ‘difference’, that is, a recognition that a gulf separates our own age from all previous ages, and that the autonomy of the past must be respected at all costs. While historians recognize that ‘knowing’ and ‘understanding’ the past can be open to widely varying approaches and interpretations, historical awareness maintains that each age is a unique manifestation of the human spirit, with its own culture and values. For one age to understand another, there must be a recognition that the passage of time has profoundly altered both the conditions of life and the mentality of men and women, and perhaps of human nature itself. Most historians do not presume to be the ‘guardians of universal values’, nor do many believe that they can deliver ‘the verdict of history’ ; but as guardians of cultural heritage whose purpose is to offer insight into the human condition they strive to understand each age on its own terms, to take on its own values and priorities, instead of imposing those of their specific generation.

All the resources of scholarship and all the historians powers of critical enquiry must be harnessed to the task of bringing the past back to life, or ‘resurrecting it’, to employ a favorite conceit of the nineteenth-century school. Implicit here is Leopold von Ranke’s famous directive to historians to show “how things actually were”, wie es eigentlich gewesen ist (Ranke : 74), a methodological first principle which emphasizes the individualistic character of history. However, the historian’s purpose is not only to uncover the uniqueness of the past, but to explain it, and this requires placing it in a historical setting (Tosh : 6-7 ; 19-22). ‘Context’ is thus the second component of historical awareness. The underlying principle here is that the subject of enquiry must not be wrenched from its setting. In treating documentary evidence, historians are required to place the texts and their language within the full context of their time. Historians take seriously the identity and background of the author, the language and the conditions that produced the texts, the intended readership, the cultural attitudes of the time, and the social relations that enveloped both writer and reader. Every text, therefore, is socially situated within specific historical conditions ; in the useful phrase of Gabrielle Spiegel, “there is a social logic of the text which is open to demonstration by historical enquiry” (Spiegel : 59-86 ; Tosh : 8 ; 22-25 ; 130). The third fundamental principle of historical awareness is the recognition that history is a ‘process’, and implicit here is the notion that history is much more than a collection of snapshots of the past, vividly and richly contextualized. History also involves constructing, and lending interpretation to, the relationships that exists between events over time, for this construction endows past events with more significance than if they were viewed in isolation. The most important role of processual thinking is that it offers an alternative to the assumptions of permanence and timelessness that underpin so many political, social, and cultural identities (Tosh : 8-9 ; 25-29).

This methodological imperative reached a critical pitch in Karl Lamprecht’s application of the concept of Massenpsychologie. Lamprecht’s rendering of this genre attempted to reconcile the individual and general forces in history. More importantly, he intended that narrative description and sequential representation of history should be supplanted by a more causal reading of history predicated on socio-psychological forces. Not surprisingly, Lamprecht’s methodology met strong opposition from the Rankean School which championed the individual-psychological form of historical narration (Toeltsch 1977). While Ranke asked the question “how things actually were”, wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, emphasizing the individualistic character of history, Lamprecht sought a more comprehensive analysis, asking the question “how things came to be”, wie es eigentlich geworden ist. In asking the latter question, Lamprecht invited historians ‘to explain’ and not just ‘reconstruct’ the past (Ricci 1997). The difference in approach between Ranke and Lamprecht marks the difference between a formalist analysis and the sensitivity to contextualism that subtends the recent incarnation of historicism in literary criticism. The former position argues that texts are autonomous aesthetic phenomena, while most new historicists assert that culture and history are themselves texts within which literary efforts are nested (Ricci 1997).

Film raises a number of very serious questions for professional historians in regard to both ‘memory’ as a theoretical construct, and ‘historical awareness’ as a series of methodological principles for studying the past. Of course, Rosenstone has attempted to mitigate much of the criticisms by cautioning those who would study film to remember the medium employs special “rules, codes and strategies to bring the past to life”, and he has often emphasized that film has a “way of recounting the past with its own rules of representation” (Rosenstone 1995b : 3-4). However, it is unclear why film language should make cinema “unique” (Rosenstone 1995a : 206-7) when compared to the text-based discipline of history. To be sure, film is a medium capable of a multiplicity of meanings, and, doubtless, too, the human condition is full of equivocation, contradiction and plurality, but this richness or flexibility can be located in any textual form, and even in any history writing, including that produced by those who cling naively to the banner of empiricism and objectivity in historical research (Bosworth and Dogliani : 105). Rosenstone’s defense against the historians who have leveled severe criticism at his method of historical enquiry, which Hayden White has conveniently labeled ‘historiophoty’ or the representation of history in visual images and filmic discourse (White 1193-99), is clear, if somewhat simplistic. He points out that many of the problems raised by the effort to “put history onto film” stem from the misguided notion held by text-based historians that the principal task of the historic filmmaker is to translate what is already a written discourse into an imagistic one (Rosenstone 1988 : 1175). Moreover, Rosenstone claims that resistance to the effort to put history onto film centers for the most part on the question of what gets lost in this process of translation, such as the “accuracy of detail, complexity of explanation, the auto-critical and inter-critical dimensions of historiological reflection, and the qualifications of generalizations necessitated by, for instance, the absence or unavailability of documentary evidence” (White : 1197). According to White, Rosenstone in this instance “appears to grant the force of I.C Jarvie’s criticism that the ‘information load’ of the filmed representation of historical events and processes is inevitably impoverished when he considers the question of whether a ‘thinning of data’ on the screen ‘makes for poor history’” (Jarvie : 378). And yet, “when he points out that film permits us to ‘see landscapes, hear sounds, witness strong emotions, or view physical conflict between individuals and groups,’ he seems unsure whether historiophoty might not ‘play down the analytical’ aspects of historiography and favor appeals to the emotive side of the spectator’s engagement with images” (White : 1197). Still, Rosenstone “insists that there is nothing inherently anti-analytical about filmed representations of history and certainly nothing that is inherently anti-historiological about historiophoty”, and, in his brief consideration of the film documentary, he “turns the force of the antihistoriophoty argument back on those who, in making this argument, appear to ignore the extent to which any kind of historiography shares these same ‘limitations’” (White 1197 ; Rosenstone 1998 : 1178-80).

The essence of historiography (difference, context and process) has for almost two centuries alerted historians to the ‘limitations’ of how and to what purpose historians transform information about ‘events’ into the ‘facts’ that serve as the subject matter of their arguments. Again, in the words of Hayden White, historians have always acknowledged that “the ‘adequacy’ of any given account of the past has always depended on the question of the choice of the set of concepts actually used by historians in their transformation of information about events into, not ‘facts’ in general, but ‘facts’ of a specific kind, such as political, social, economic, cultural, or psychological facts”. Indeed, acknowledging

[t]he instability of the very distinction between ‘historical’ facts on the one side and nonhistorical (‘natural’ facts, for example) on the other, a distinction without which a specifically historical kind of knowledge would be unthinkable, indicates clearly that historians have never doubted the ‘constructivist nature’ of the their scholarly enterprise. When considering the utility or adequacy of filmed accounts of historical events, Rosenstone and his followers would be well advised to similarly reflect upon the ways in which a distinctively imagistic discourse can or cannot transform information about the past into facts of a specific kind.
(White : 1198-99)

Text-based historians have always sought to be as aware as possible of the many strands woven into the texture both of their ‘documents’ and of their own ‘narrative’. In that sense, the ‘writing’ and the ‘reading’ of a film are no different from any other form of historical research. Film is just another source, requiring its own scrupulous and humble analysis. As a ‘cinematic historical document’, film forms part of that delicate mosaic of historical interpretation which is destined always to be composite and never to be complete (Bondanella 1995 : 107).

Still, being aware of the multiple processes involved in ‘reading’ film does not end the ambiguities and contradictions in comprehension, and no where has this more apparent than in relation to Italian contemporary film constructions of the Italian Fascist experience of 1922-45 (Bosworth and Dogliani : 104). When considering the reconstruction, narration and analysis of Fascism on film a number of very important questions are raised for historians. How have Italian films constructed or ‘re-visioned’ the historical world of the Italian Fascist dictatorship ? What particular themes of history have flourished ? How do the themes developed by films relate and compare to the themes advanced in the historical writing about Fascism since its collapse in 1945 ? To what degree has Italian politics in the post-Fascist world influenced historical filmmaking or, indeed, privileged a specific theme ? Has film been purposely employed to convey a specific functional and organizational myth ? Did film induce Italians to ‘forget’ the ‘real’ nature of their ‘active participation’ with the Fascist regime, its aggressive military campaigns, and its involvement in the Holocaust and the systematic extermination of Italian Jews ? Are the memories captured on celluloid ‘lies’, and, if so, have they served to drive out other, ‘truer’, memories of Benito Mussolini’s totalitarian state ? If, as Rosenstone states, “the visual media” has become “the chief carrier of historical messages in our culture” (Rosenstone 1995b : 3), which usable past have post-1945 films in Italy chiefly displayed (Bosworth and Dogliani : 104) ?

Bernardo Bertolucci and Italian Fascism on Film

Although many thousands of films have been produced in Italy since 1945, only a select few of these have chosen the Fascist past in any direct sense as their subject (Ramonet : 30-35). Indeed, the great majority of Italian films aimed to be ‘popular’, and, apart from often carrying a certain ‘populism’, addressed politics marginally and by implication (Paliotti : 166). Still, a number of important films on Fascism have been produced over the course of the last sixty years, and three of Bernardo Bertolucci’s films —La strategia del ragno/The Spiders Stratagem (1970), Il conformista/The Conformist (1970), and Novecento/1900 (1977)— stand out perhaps as the most important ever made. There can be no question that Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta/Rome, Open City (1945) continues to attract great critical acclaim as the finest Italian film ever produced about Fascism (Armes 1971 ; Spinazzola 1974 ; Lizzani 1979 ; Liehm 1984 ; Brunette 1987), but a “fresh scanning of the neorealist masterpiece uncovers a historical world which is seeking to ‘forget’ rather than ‘remember’ the Italian Fascist experience” (Bosworth and Dogliani : 108). Rossellini’s film conveyed Fascism as a ‘parenthesis’, an aberration in the Crocean sense (Croce : 49-51), where evil sprang from the exceptional, from the ‘other’, from the sadists and sexually perverse agents of the Nazi occupation, rather than from the Italians themselves. In many important respects, “Rossellini was advising the forgetting of the Fascist ventennio, since now was the time for all good Italian men and women to rally” to the cause of the nation and national reconstruction. In essence, Rossellini “was thus depicting the first, liberal myth of the Italian Resistance, even if it was one which, for a time, much of the Italian Left would, for their own reasons, also endorse” (Bosworth and Dogliani : 108). Bertolucci’s films, on the other hand, and herein lies their great merit, attempt to address Italian Fascist history directly. Where Rossellini’s didactic intent in 1945 was to generate a new Italian society based on resistance ideals, a political task which conservative intellectuals like Renzo De Felice classified in part as the birth of the “anti-Fascist Vulgate” (De Felice 1995 : 8), Bertolucci’s emphasis sought to reconstruct Fascism by exploring three of the most controversial questions facing historians over the course of the past half century : the myths of Resistance historiography ; conformism and the degree to which Italians actively participated in the crimes of the regime ; and the dialectic of the class struggle in the modern Italian experience.

It has been noted by one important scholar in the field that, among the younger aggressively ideological Italian directors and filmmakers who emerged in the post neorealist generation to make films on Fascism —Lina Wertmüller Love and Anarchy (1972) and Seven Beauties (1976) ; Florestano Vancini Il Delitto Matteotti (1973) ; Liliana Cavani The Night Porter (1974) ; Pier Paolo Pasolini Salò (1975) ; Ettore Scola A Special Day (1977) ; Francesco Rosi Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979) ; Paolo and Vittorio Taviani Night of the Shooting Stars (1982) ; Gianni Amelio Open Doors (1990) ; Gabriele Salvatores Mediterraneo (1992) ; and Roberto Benigni Life is Beautiful (1998)— Bertolucci, together with his mentor and much more senior Pier Paolo Pasolini, “received the greatest attention from critics and intellectuals and eventually gained the broadest, most international audiences”. Both Bertolucci and Pasolini, before his tragic death in 1975, reflected in much of their work “a heuristic encounter with two major intellectual trends, psychoanalysis and Marxism”, although “neither director can be said to embody totally orthodox Freudian or Marxist positions in their work” (Bondanella 2001 : 275). Bertolucci actually began his cinematic career as Pasolini’s assistant, and although his films owe a great debt to Pasolini’s influence, Bertolucci’s work “embody a more orthodox understanding of psychoanalysis and Marxist theory than is evident from Pasolini’s rather eccentric readings of Freud, Jung, Marx, and Gramsci. Nevertheless, the two men reflect not only similar intellectual influences, but also parallel development in their work” (Bondanella 2001 : 296). Both Bertolucci and Pasolini moved from films directed to small, elite intellectual Italian audiences to films that were accessible to international commercial audiences. In reference specifically to Bertolucci, it has been observed further that “the move to increasingly commercial films did not however imply a lessening of his talent”. Indeed, “on the contrary, Bertolucci’s abilities in particular seemed to be liberated by his move away from the hermetic world of the Parisian cinéphile reflected by his earlier films” (Bondanella 2001 : 296-7).

Bertolucci was born in Parma in 1941. The son of the renowned poet Attilio Bertolucci, the filmmaker himself was awarded the Viareggio Prize in 1962 for a first poetry work entitled In Cerca del Mistero/In Search of Mystery (1962). Bertolucci’s first experience with cinema came as the assistant director on Pasolini’s inaugural film, Accattone (1961). The following year, he made his own distinguished debut with La Commare Secca/The Grim Reaper (1962), a script about the murder of a prostitute which Pasolini had originally written to direct, but which Bertolucci in the end rewrote extensively with Sergio Citti. With his second film, Prima della rivoluzione/Before the Revolution (1964), Bertolucci’s preoccupation with politics, sex and Freud was on display for the first time, as were the ideological and aesthetic tensions that would play themselves out throughout the course of his career : the cinematic representation of the conflict between freedom and conformity. In this reworking of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), the leading character is an upper-class youth who fancies himself a Marxist but ultimately learns he is nothing of the sort. Forced to decide between radical political commitment and an irreproachably bourgeois marriage, he opts for the latter, conducting an incestuous affair with an apolitical aunt along the way and renouncing his communist mentor and totemic father figure. The film evoked comparisons to Orson Welles, but was a failure at the box office. Angry and disillusioned, Bertolucci joined the Italian Communist Party and went about resurrecting his career in television by making a prize-winning series of three documentaries about the Italian petroleum industry (Michalczyk : 114). The cerebral Jean-Luc Godard-inspired Partner (1968), which continued the political argument begun in Before the Revolution, started to explore the director’s fascination with the psychological double, but suffered for its polemical excess, and found few admirers. However, in 1970, when Bertolucci turned his attention to Italian Fascism and to reconstructing Italian Fascist history on screen, his career became more established and his reputation as one of the cinema’s most significant talents began to take flight.

Bertolucci’s first film to deal with Italian Fascism was La strategia del ragno/The Spiders Stratagem (1970), a minor masterpiece produced for RAI, the Italian state television network. Based upon a short story by Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges, Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1961), The Spiders Stratagem marks a rejection of the Godardian style of Partner and a return to the lyrical evocation of Bertolucci’s provincial origins that characterizes Before the Revolution. The film, which is built around a representation of the Oedipal complex, transposes Borges’s setting from revolutionary Ireland to the Renaissance town of Sabbioneta, called Tara in the film, and it moves between the present and the events that took place in 1936 during the Fascist period. The protagonist, Athos Magnani (Giulio Brogi), returns home thirty years after the assassination of his father, an anti-Fascist hero also named Athos Magnani, where he tries to discover the truth obscuring the events leading up to his father’s death. Through a series of complicated chronological flashbacks employing the same actors, costumes and locations, Athos Jr. “discovers that the traitor in the group of conspirators who plotted to assassinate Mussolini was actually his own father who then collaborated with his comrades to produce an operatic anti-Fascist myth, since the Fascists are blamed for his murder” (Bondanella 2001 : 300). Moreover, Athos Jr. learns the truth about his father, as well as the precise moment when he was murdered in the town’s opera house during Rigoletto’s famous aria “Maledizione”, when he, himself, is attending the same performance in the present. Athos Sr. thus dies in a drama in which the town of Tara “becomes a theater influenced by references to Verdian melodrama and Shakespearian tragedy” (Bondanella 2001 : 300). Significantly enough, however, “the truth about the death of Athos Sr. does not set the son free”, and, indeed, on the contrary, “it imprisons him in the mythical web that his father, like the spider, has created” (Bondanella 2001 : 301). The father and the past have triumphed over the son and the present, and Athos Sr. remains an enigma to his imprisoned son : whether he betrayed his comrades because of his cowardice, or whether he embraced his martyrdom consciously, engineering the melodramatic spectacle resulting in his death to create an enduring anti-Fascist myth, will never be completely clear (Bondanella 2001 : 301).

As cinema, The Spiders Stratagem is a near-perfect example of the sublimation of an artist’s individual neuroses into a brilliant work of art (Bondanella 2001 : 301). As political commentary, Bertolucci’s film exposes the distance and the conflict that exists between the Fascist and post-Fascist generations, and it advances the idea that the ‘memory’ of anti-Fascist activity during the regime is nothing more than a cultural construct of anti-Fascist intellectuals of the post-Fascist period. In reference specifically to history, however, Bertolucci’s film offers little more than a psychological drama set in the Fascist period. As one commentator has argued : in the Spiders Stratagem “father and son have collapsed in on each other as one identity, destroying, or rather ‘destroying’ family history” (Kline : 77). Thus, even though Cesare Zavattini, one of Italy’s greatest advocates of a realist, anti-illusionist cinema, contributed to the screenplay, the film, insofar as it coveys “how things actually were” or “how things came to be”, seems more a critique of the official generalized myth of the Resistance than an active historical reconstruction of its Italian Communist Party variant (Dalle Vacche : 277). In essence, “Bertolucci is offering an Italian Communist Party analysis of Fascism, in which it is a manifestation of a particular stage in the development of bourgeois capitalism, and he is giving the same skeptical class-based analysis of bourgeois anti-Fascism : that it is basically aesthetic” (Wagstaff 1996 : 208-209). In an interview offered in 1973, Bertolucci himself confirmed much of this when he indicated that psychology and memory as a cultural construct was placed under stronger focus in the film than was history : “I think film in general expresses ‘film’. I know that’s a tautology, but when critics ask me what did you want to say in the film, I say, nothing, with the film I want to say just the film” (Georgakis and Rubenstein : 37). A later work by Bertolucci, La tragedia di un uomo ridicolo/The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981), revisits the same theme and conveys much of the same message by reversing the narrative premise, following a father’s search for his son.

Bertolucci’s cinematic adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s famous novel The Conformist (1951) is perhaps the most important of the three major films on Fascism which he produced, although many film critics and historians have questioned its ideological coherence and historiographical merits (Micché 1980 ; Whitcombe 1982 ; Georgakis and Rubenstein 1985 ; Michalczyk 1986 ; Kline 1987 ; Bosworth 1989 ; Burgoyne 1991 ; Dalle Vacche 1992). With The Conformist “Bertolucci took a fairly conventional chronological narrative told by an omniscient narrator —Moravia’s tale of a child’s psychic development that begins with a view of his parents making love, leads to a traumatic homosexual encounter, and results in his compulsive search for normality or conformity by joining the Fascist Party— and produced a completely subjective film, shaped by his own experiences under psychoanalysis that rejects chronological narration and juxtaposes time sequences in a manner even more complicated than that found in The Spiders Stratagem” (Bondanella 2001 : 301). In an interview Bertolucci announced in fact that his intention was to reconstruct the “memory of [his] memory” on film, and, more importantly, to “expose both Fascism and the sins of fathers” (Bertolucci 1971 ; Kline : 104). He also indicated that he wanted to use the film to alert audiences to the fact that Fascism had survived the collapse of the regime in 1945, and was alive and well in contemporary Italy : “The Conformist is a film on the present, [and] when I say that I want to make the public leave with a sense of malaise, perhaps feeling the presence of something obscurely sinister, it’s because I want them to realize that however the world has changed, feelings have remained the same” (Goldin : 66).

The plot of The Conformist can be expressed in a single phrase : the main character, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), is a man who represses homosexual drives and strives for ‘acceptable life’ as a member of Mussolini’s Fascist secret service, until an odd series of events conspire to make him a willing murderer in defense of the regime. In terms of reconstructing or assembling the plot, however, the task becomes much more demanding since the many flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks disrupt any linear sense of time. As one excellent study of the film has remarked, “the film presents the viewer with a jumble of elements and chronologies which can be described only as oneiric, [since] these first scenes not only lack causal and chronological coherence, but they operate by condensation, displacement, projection, and doubling-all techniques of what Freud has termed the latent dream work” (Kline : 231). The protagonist Clerici uses a honeymoon trip from Rome to Paris with his new wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) to cover a political mission he undertakes for the National Fascist Party : he must eliminate an anti-Fascist Italian exile living in France, Professor Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), his former philosophy professor and thesis supervisor at the University of Rome, and a character who bears some resemblance to the idealist Neopolitan philosopher Benedetto Croce. In fact, the events surrounding Quadri’s murder in the film are loosely based on the brutal assassinations of Carlo and Nello Rosselli on the outskirts of Paris in 1937 at the hands of Fascist operatives. The Rosselli brothers were leading anti-Fascist exiles and founders of the underground Giustizia e Libertà movement, whose political theory was a mixture of bourgeois idealism and socialism (Wagstaff 1996 : 208-209). Throughout the journey, Clerici is accompanied by Fascist Special Agent Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) and encounters Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda), the lesbian wife of the professor who allows herself to be manipulated by Clerici so that she may seduce his wife, Giulia. The entire story is related through a complex series of flashbacks that begin at the moment Clerici and Manganiello pursue Quadri into a dark forest to assassinate him on October 15, 1938. The action shifts back from that moment in time to follow Clerici’s search for conformity within Fascism, his marriage, his homosexual encounter with Lino Semirama (Pierre Clementi), a chauffeur, which took place on March 25, 1917, and his meeting in Paris with the Quadris. The film culminates in the murder of the professor and his wife on that fateful mid October day in 1938, but it ends with a coda set during the late evening of July 25, 1943, when Mussolini falls from power and the Fascist regime begins to collapse (Bondanella 2001 : 302).

With this rather ingenious manipulation of chronology, Bertolucci brilliantly manages to convey not only the sense of Clerici’s entrapment in the past, but his blindness to the ultimate irony that in conforming to the Fascist State of Benito Mussolini, he “has simply found on a mass scale the very corruption, psychopathology, and violence that he sought to obliterate in his own soul” (Marcus : 308). Bertolucci is also able to poignantly emphasize with great effect the film’s dominant motifs of entrapment and blindness through the careful composition of individual shots, as well as intricate attention to the effects of light and shadow. For example, in Bertolucci’s version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, transferred to Quadri’s office, the interplay of shadow and silhouette underscores the ambivalent relationship between illusion and reality, sight and blindness, and it is contextualized in the film to indicate the dynamic model of the moral choice that besets Clerici : the shadows of Fascist compliance or the bright light of resistance (Marcus : 300). Ambiguous ideological guides are also present in the film in the characters of Italo Montanari (Jose Quaglio), Clerici’s blind friend who is a Fascist radio propagandist, and the little blind flower girl in the streets of Paris who sells violets and sings the Socialist “Internationale” (Bondanella 2001 : 305). The darkened sets, split screen effects, and images of bars, prisons and tight spaces are constantly repeated to suggest an abnormal, trapped and chaotic mental state beset by warring impulses : for example, Clerici’s rigid body language, typified by robot-like movements and a total absence of spontaneity, reflects, on a kinetic level, his efforts to control the chaos of his inner psychic state ; the horizontal and vertical windows at the Fascist ministry where Clerici receives his initial orders are obvious representations of entrapment and conformity ; as are the scenes involving Clerici’s premarital confession in church and his ride in Manganiello’s automobile en route to the Quadri murder scene (Marcus : 296).

Another recurrent pattern in the cinematography is the image of Clerici through a pane of glass that picks up the reflections of others outside his imprisoned psyche : at the radio station when his friend Italo makes a propaganda broadcast celebrating the “Prussian aspect of Mussolini” and the “Latin aspect of Hitler”, in the train heading for Paris, in the sequence in which Anna and Giulia perform a sensual tango in the dancehall of Joinville, and again within the car with Manganiello on the way to the killing field (Bondanella 2001 : 306-307). Of course, central to Bertolucci’s reconstruction of the motifs of entrapment and blindness is also Clerici’s constant search for surrogate fathers, authority figures he seeks both to appease and, again, in typically Oedipal fashion, to destroy. The blind Italo is one such figure, as are the Fascist Special Agent Manganiello and Professor Quadri himself, who by the end of the film emerges as the “father/teacher par excellence”. To underline the repetition of this intimate relationship in Clerici’s life, Bertolucci also forces the protagonist to confront his real father in the eerie and surrealistic asylum resembling a prison, a scene in which he is rejected and forced to watch as his father, dressed in squadrista uniform, locks himself in a straitjacket while muttering an enigmatic phrase over and over again : “massacre and melancholy” (Bondanella 2001 : 306). The use of light and shadows, the motifs of entrapment and blindness, and the representation of the Oedipal complex occur simultaneously in the penultimate scene of the film as an enormous bust of Mussolini is dragged over the Ponte Sant’Angelo in the wake of the dictator’s fall from power. The headlight of a motorcycle which pierces the darkness suggests “the illuminating power of anti-Fascist truth to dispel the shadows produced by the imagery of dictatorship” (Marcus : 299). In the end, Bertolucci’s poetic talents and his consummate technical skills triumph over the sometimes over-insistent ideological structure contained within his historical reconstruction (Bondanella 2001 : 306).

Even though some knowledge of Freudian theory is essential for understanding The Conformist, the film cannot be exhausted by a psychoanalytical interpretation. In fact, as a coherent explanation of the birth of a Fascist, The Conformist fails just as certainly as did the theories of Wilhelm Reich in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), of Erich Fromm in Escape From Freedom (1941), and of Peter Nathan in The Psychology of Fascism (1943), works which obviously influenced Bertolucci’s adaptation of Moravia’s novel. By placing the ultimate origin of Clerici’s conformity and his desire for normality in the realm of Clerici’s unconscious (the lingering memory of a homosexual attack), Bertolucci undermines any Marxist explanation of the rise of Italian Fascism through class struggle or middle-class repression of the working class (Bondanella 2001 : 304). The main thrust of Bertolucci’s interpretation is that Fascism should be seen as the product of a decaying central European middle-class society, whose family structure encouraged sadomasochistic personal authority relationships. Paradoxically, although Bertolucci would assert in a number of interviews that Clerici did in fact embody the middle-class origins of Italian Fascism, there is no evidence in the film to support this position. On the contrary, as one astute scholar has observed, “the only milieu ever reflected in The Conformist, that of the decadent bourgeoisie, includes not only Clerici and his family, but also the anti-Fascist Quadri couple as well. Anna Quadri’s lesbianism, as well as her husband’s obvious voyeuristic pleasure in observing her sexual escapades with members of her sex, mark the anti-Fascists of the picture as members of the same decadent class to which Clerici belongs” (Bondanella 2001 : 304). In an interview Bertolucci acknowledged as much when he declared that “Quadri is not a Marxist anti-Fascist, [but] just a [Crocean] idealist, [and] because he is also middle-class, my anti-Fascist is not a hero, not a positive man” (Georgakis and Rubenstein : 35). Thus, far from an explanation or reconstruction of Fascism, The Conformist is, in reality, like The Spiders Stratagem, only a political indictment of a generation and their historical myths. At best the film illustrates a certain limited understanding of Fascism and it manages to expose and to interrogate certain liberal constructions of anti-Fascism, but it does so by employing a vulgar and unsophisticated Marxism (Bosworth 1998 : 112). Above all else, Bertolucci’s ‘historical film’ “may be seen as a parable of what happens when an individual, and by extension an entire population, abdicates responsibility for its moral condition” (Marcus : 286).

Bertolucci would return to reconstructing Fascism on film one last time with Novecento/1900 (1977), an epic film of massive scope and power which generated significant controversy among political analysts and historians (Pintus 1980 ; Whitcombe 1982 ; Georgakis and Rubenstein 1983 ; Kline 1987 ; Bosworth 1989 ; Burgoyne 1991 ; Dalle Vacche 1992 ; Wagstaff 1994 ; Bondanella 2001). It is both a vast history of twentieth-century Italy and an intimate portrait of two Italian families. It is also the story of the conflicts between two boys both born on January 1, 1900. A landowner named Alfredo Berlinghieri (Robert De Niro) and a peasant named Olmo Dalcò (Gérard Depardieu) pass through the upheavals of the modern world, and their personal conflicts become an allegory of the political turmoil of Italy. An astonishing international cast gives a magnificent ensemble performance as the people whose lives affect, and are affected by Socialism, the Great War, the rise of Fascism and Fascist violence, the coming to power of Mussolini and the consolidation of totalitarianism, the collapse of the regime, and the brutal civil war between Fascists and partisans. In a series of interviews Bertolucci announced that he intended 1900 to “replicate history”. His cinema, he explained, was “a kind of reservoir of the collective memory” of the Italian twentieth century, and he boasted that his film would bring to the screen the definitive history of the peasantry of his native Emilia Romagna : “the region that’s been socialist ever since socialism existed and communist ever since communism has existed” (Georgakis and Rubenstein : 138).

By the time he directed 1900, however, Bertolucci read history, and particularly Italian Fascist history, with less artfulness, especially when compared to either The Spiders Stratagem or The Conformist (Bosworth 1998 : 167). There can be no doubt that he produced a marvelous film, and one of great visual opulence, but as a piece of historical reconstruction, Bertolucci’s version of the class struggle is motivated less by Marxist ideology and class consciousness than by sheer violence and will to power (Quart : 14-17). The film has a curious coda, and one scholar has perceptively observed that it gives great insight into Bertolucci’s personal politics and his utopian vision of the history. At the end of the film, set in the present of 1975, when Alfredo and Olmo are both old men, the two protagonists wrestle down a hill, headed toward the train tracks where, in their youth, Olmo dared Alfredo to lie between the tracks while a train passed over his body. This time, however, Alfredo lies not between the tracks, but on them, and as Bertolucci cuts back to a picture of the younger Alfredo, the execution of the padrone, postponed on the day of Liberation in 1945, is now transformed into a self-willed suicide. For Bertolucci the Italian ruling class has collapsed of its own dead weight, and the victory of the class to which Olmo belongs is inevitable. Bertolucci thus repeats in 1900 the substance of the ideology of Before the Revolution. A middle-class intellectual, Bertolucci believes that he, like Alfredo, can never actually become an integral part of the class he admires for its progressive role in Italian history. Thus, 1900 is a utopian view of a revolution that has yet to occur, made by a director who is doomed, so he believes, to make films in an era before the revolution. Bertolucci’s ideological compromises stem from this perspective : to make a film in a capitalist system, he must follow the unwritten rules of cinematic spectacle and must bow to some of the dictates of his financial backers (few of whom were Marxists). The finished product reflects this ambivalent position and makes of it a far more honest work than many of its severest critics realized. Despite its basically Marxist stance, 1900 maintains a Freudian perspective that is not completely submerged by politics : in a general sense, Bertolucci’s view of the landed class in his film reflects his belief that the sins of the fathers are always visited upon their sons (Bondanella 2001 : 313-314).


Bertolucci’s reconstruction of Fascism on film has more in common with ‘memory’ as defined by cultural theorists than it does with ‘historical awareness’ as a series of methodological principles developed and employed by historians to study the past. The essence of historiography (difference, context, and process) is for all intents and purposes absent from the methods Bertolucci engages to construct his ‘cinematic historical documents’ on the Italian Fascist experience. To be sure, all three films reviewed contain elements of a rudimentary Freudian Marxism, but much of this had been displaced as an interpretation of Fascism in the historiographical literature produced by historians many years before the films were actually made. Ironically enough, Bertolucci’s failure as a historian lies precisely in the realm where he shines as a brilliant filmmaker and artist : by using myth, metaphor and melodrama to divine a collective memory, to articulate ideological content, and to impart moral lessons, Bertolucci proves himself to be a poor historian but an able practitioner of Rossellini’s ‘open cinema’, “accepting full responsibility for the Fascist history he portrays while rejecting programmatic political solutions as inappropriate to the cinema, whose illusionist properties recommend ambiguity rather than didacticism” (Marcus : 312). To his credit, of course, Bertolucci never claimed to be a professional academic historian. At the time that he produced Spiders Stratagem, The Conformist, and 1900 he considered himself above all a bourgeois intellectual Communist filmmaker, and, perhaps more importantly, an individual who could not deny or evade his class identity and its inheritance. According to one commentator, this was for Bertolucci a recipe for a dialectic : a conflict of opposing aspirations and leanings that led to the art that he produced in his films. Thus, inside Bertolucci ‘the director’ ran the dialectic that Marxism detects in ‘history’, and Bertolucci offered his own inner contradictions as a sort of specimen of the forces at work behind twentieth-century Italian history (Wagstaff : 202). Although Bertolucci’s films on Fascism, in contradiction to the claims of Robert Rosenstone, did not play a unique role, either in its writing or in its unwitting interpretation of Italian history, as ‘cinematic historical documents’ they demonstrate clearly how a contemporary world, contemplating a future, generally invents the past it believes it deserves (Bosworth and Dogliani : 117).