David Thomson detects a gap between this film's baroque style and the substance – a protagonist who wants more than anything to be "normal". That urge is so potent it has an impact on Marcello's sexuality. Only when hearing of his wife's first sexual experience (at 15 with an uncle) is he turned on enough to sleep with her – repeating what other men have done before. Perhaps the unconventional Anna – married to an intellectual, living in Paris (and bisexual?) – holds out the promise of alternative possibilities and the end to Marcello's fascism. But he isn't brave enough to enter her topsy-turvy world (unlike the hero of The Dreamers – still my favourite Bertolucci film).
If The Conformist is supposed to be a psychoanalysis of fascism, it's not sophisticated: childhood sexual trauma, bullying, a broken home, shame, and the urge to conform. And then there's the lush look of the film – money, glamour and sleaze. But all of that adds up to less that I was hoping for. At the end of the film, Marcello wants to disassociate himself from his previous life and blame his murders on his childhood abuser. Perhaps he's not wrong to do so. But this isn't a serious look at what fascism was. It's just one broken man. And I'm not convinced this character suggests something symptomatic of modernity, as Thompson suggests.