Clerici is the model representation of the historical figure no one likes to talk about: the willing, nameless accomplice to great evil. He's mostly achieved his goal of looking unremarkable and blending, which makes his presence all the more unsettling. In a scene echoing Le Samourai, Clerici gets dressed for a job airlessly without a hint of anticipation, curdling the earlier film's sense of cool into oppressive joylessness. Bertolucci takes cinematic care to show him as one insignificant cog in a vast machine, often framing him as an ant walking across vast hallways or waiting rooms in building full of sharp angles and oppressive architectural order. Clerici nearly disappears into these environments, a comment on the goals of both the government he works for and his own. The fascist state is uninterested in individuals, save for the one at the top, and Clerici is the perfect, faceless employee.
Bertolucci, who adapted the script from a 1951 novel of the same name, goes a bit overboard in tautly psychoanalyzing his protagonist. A bit of mystery for figures like Clerici might have been more effective. In flashbacks to childhood, Clerici is shown lashing out at bullies of his own age and far older, sometimes with potentially deadly violence. Where this was the impetus for Steve Rogers to become Captain America, The Conformist shows the far more likely and realistic adult reaction of an overwhelming desire to blend in. A great deal of information about Clerici's family is also given. Born into a wealthy family, his parents have fallen into decadent decay by the time he's an adult. His father's a syphilitic invalid and his mother is addicted to heroin, both counter-examples to be followed at all costs. All Clerici's experiences add up to a man who can only go through the motions, who'll humor his wife's Catholic parents despite his atheism, who'll do work for Mussolini despite not caring about his goals. Institutions have failed him, but he's fine with propping them up if it means he gets to be left alone.
In depicting the strain of adhering to social strictures, The Conformist isn't solely a product of its setting. Giulla's feelings towards sex feel sadly contemporary. Clerici's mantra of 'nothing matters' is at first an asset to her guilt about not being a virgin on their wedding night. He could care less, and sees no reason why she should either. As she talks about her sexual history with him, his nonchalance turns cruel when she reveals that a family lawyer forced himself on her when she was a teenager. Society gets her coming and going, unable to do less than submit to an older man of authority and later stuck with the stigma of premarital sex. She's conforming just as Clerici is, but it means social advancement for him, license to rape for the lawyer, and shame for her. Giulla is often portrayed as bubble-headed, which is a shame because her story is the most resonant in the film, a woman stuck in patriarchal quicksand.
The Conformist contains the deliberateness of so many 70's films, and that's often an adjustment when immersed in the more frenetic editing and propulsiveness of modern films. It does sag slightly, but as it's about a phenomenon I often ponder, Bertolucci keeps me intrigued. The lives of those who uphold a ruthless state could be motivated by any number of impulses, and it's more important to know about them than the colorful leaders they work for. These armies of apparatchiks who would enable suffering and evil lurk in every society, and a peek into their psyches is equally enlightening as a film like Downfall, which dramatized Hitler's last days. The Conformist isn't as grabby or meme-ready as that film, but it gives a dreary look at the banality of evil without unnecessary fireworks. B+