Nonconformists: A Report on Two Italian Films

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

Partner is the film Bernardo Bertolucci made following Before the Revolution and prior to The Conformist, The Spider’s Stratagem, and Last Tango in Paris. It is nominally based on Dostoevsky’s The Double. There are some really extraordinary things in it, but it is also the least satisfying of the five Bertolucci films that have found their way to the United Stares (his first feature, The Grim Reaper, is not in distribution here). While there are sometimes two Pierre Clémentis on screen at once, the movie and the character suffer less from split personality than from multiple fractures. Clémenti plays Jacob, a young intellectual haunted by his own double; and here, as elsewhere, Bertolucci is concerned with the gap between political awareness and political action. But despite the film’s basic conceit, he has failed in Partner to find illuminating forms and figures for this very contemporary emotional ailment. The double device signifies in only the most obvious ways: mostly it provides opportunities for Bertolucci to create some fascinating shots. Toward the end, we are told that the revolutionary side of Jacob is a part of all of us that may some day find expression. But this neither suggests nor compels much conviction, especially since Bertolucci, his film, and the characters trail off into self-doubt … at which point the film ceases to continue.

Big chunks of the movie are variations on Godard (though almost always filtered through Bertolucci’s baroque sensuality), and the fragmentation which I mentioned is at least partly the result of an attempt to take off on Godard’s discontinuous film forms. Godard, Bertolucci, Dusan Makavejev, Miklós Jancsó, and others aspire to an open-ended kind of film radicalism, but with Bertolucci in particular, anarchic art forms seem less liberating and more reductive. The political will and the directorial personality are not in tune, and so the inconclusiveness that might reflect “undogmatic openness” in others evokes neurotic withdrawal in Bertolucci.

As even his most cogent films have shown, Bertolucci is too much of an aesthete ever to be much of an ideologue. In Partner, for example, there is a sequence in which a baby buggy (set in motion by a couple wearing gas masks) is used for a travesty of Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence: this part of the film is both disturbing and amusing, but its appeal has to do with knowledge of cinema rather than with history or politics. Bertolucci may mean this sequence as a reflection of Jacob’s political inadequacies, but that still leaves Bertolucci with the same problem: his grasp of political inadequacies is much stronger than his sense of political necessities.

That said, Partner remains a film with a number of exceptional passages. The director has spoken of it as “my most surrealistic film,” and it is perhaps best seen in that light. It begins with a very appealing variation on Godard: Clémenti reads and broods in a noisy café while watching the street through the window—in a series of brief shots isolated from one another by fades. Next, we have some high Bertolucci baroque, the killing of a piano-playing young man in a yellowish room with the huge shadows of a fan or chandelier turning slowly on the wall. The level of invention drops frequently after that, but there is much more: Clémenti doing battle with his own shadow, which in this case turns out to have a will—and size—of its own; or the camera tracking back and forth around a dim book-filled room, finding first the one Jacob and then the other while the two converse. In an intriguingly gratuitous mock honeymoon scene, Clémenti more or less assaults a seemingly befuddled Stefania Sandrelli in the backseat of a stationary Studebaker convertible while an older man named Petrushka makes motor noises in the driver’s sear. And there’s Clémenti delivering an impromptu lecture on morality (“evil is unreality”) while using a stagehand’s cobweb-making machine to create a counterpoint of reality and illusion.

Partner, finally, is not as good as its good scenes make it sound. But the good in it is too good to be passed over.

***

At the outset In the Name of the Father makes promises that it doesn’t keep, but overall it stays very much alive with some of the bitter comedy and trenchant satire that have distinguished previous Bellocchio films. It begins with a father and his teenage son walking down a long hallway, the elder intermittently slapping the younger for having been expelled from school. Young Transuenti (Yves Beneyton) is singularly unimpressed and ends by giving his father a few swats of his own. Ah, yes—a film about the generation gap? Well, not quite. The son further establishes himself as an uncowed rebel when he refuses to bow his head in unison with his fellows at his next school, and his intensity and dignity suggest that he will be the hero of a film protesting religious hypocrisy, and authoritarianism. But—again—not quite. Soon the proceedings take a Buñuelian turn: a wildly humorous classroom scene has students and teacher alike with their heads over, in, and under their desks as if colossally stoned on boredom. There’s also a tongueless exiled Russian priest gibbering about communism, and an image of the Virgin which suddenly takes very fleshly form. But much of this mélange of surrealism and rebellion is largely a trick on behalf of the film’s intentions; for Bellocchio’s movie is ultimately a sober and almost didactic satire.

The director’s previous films, Fist in the Pocket and China Is Near, successfully mixed a wild sense of humor with politics and ideology. While In the Name of the Father includes brilliant moments in both these respects, only the brilliance of those moments saves the film from succumbing to formal disorder. But, complain as one might about its inconsistent tone, the picture wields an exceptionally sharp blade on aspects of Italian society that need not be seen in merely provincial terms. The early scenes show the greatest inspiration, but Bellocchio’s critique of the Catholic school and its students has a lot more to offer in lieu of the almost obligatory protests that one might have expected with such a subject. Indeed, Bellocchio, very much the maker of paradoxes, extends his ironies well beyond the tired old system itself to the forces struggling to rebel against it. Thus, young Transuenti is certainly a rebel, but he also develops into something of a neo-fascist technocrat. His rebellion against a worn-out religious conservatism seems well-placed at first, but the point is soon made that the students’ reform proposals coincide with the school’s own plans for itself. Not to be stopped that easily, our uniformed rebel espouses a “scientific” approach to things and, noting that the world is run on fear, proposes to activate that emotion on his own behalf in the school.

All of this is complicated in a most interesting way by the presence of a blatantly exploited school staff (petty criminals and other outcasts working as kitchen help, etc.) which rebels on its own behalf against the school regime. The students give monetary and mostly muddled support to a staff strike, but the strikers’ leader (a surly and resentful Lou Castel) is unimpressed, and Transuenti perceives that the Castel character in particular represents a proletarian force in direct opposition to the values his own personal “scientific” rebellion stands for.

Bellocchio’s critique focuses on a piece of Italy in the late 1950s, but its implications apply to a major chunk of the contemporary world, to what we are now and how we got that way. Many of the students are strikingly cast caricatures of whimpering conformism, with more than a few showing signs once again of fascism lingering long in some Italian hearts. The traditional world of religion seems thoroughly hapless. But there is a genuine sense of menace emerging from Transuenti’s militant agnosticism—almost enough to make institutionalized religion look like the last gasp of classical humanism. When Transuenti calls for an era whose leaders will be “free of crises of conscience,” the film inevitably takes on special pungency for Americans living in the Nixon era. But it also establishes itself thereby as a film about the Fifties which bypasses the currently marketable nostalgias and brings out instead a sense of the dangers that certain Fifties mentalities have bequeathed to our own times.

PARTNER
Direction: Bernardo Bertolucci. Screenplay: Bertolucci and Gianni Amico; loosely based on The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Cinematography: Ugo Piccone.
The Players: Pierre Clémenti, Stefania Sandrelli, Tina Aumont, Sergio Tofano.

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER
Screenplay and Direction: Marco Bellocchio. Cinematography: Franco di Giacomo.
The Players: Yves Beneyton, Lou Castel.

Copyright © 1974 Peter Hogue


Leave a Reply