An Analysis of The Godfather and The Conformist’s Protagonists: Comparative Essay

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Bernardo Bertolucci, the Italian filmmaker, was best known for his 1970 masterpiece The Conformist, which was a huge inspiration to Francis Coppola when making The Godfather in 1972. The Conformist centers on the life of Marcello Clerici, a hitman working for the Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism during the reign of Benito Mussolini. The Godfather, regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, centers on mob drama and focuses on the powerful Italian American crime family of Don Vito Corleone. Both Clerici’s and Don Corleone’s character cinematic representation were built on an identity image based on the values most demanded at the time: incorruptibility, honesty, crime fighting and, finally, law and order. These were the social contradictions that plagued the world at each movie’s time.

To understand more about each character, one must understand the basis of each movie. The Conformist follows Marcello Clerici, a young Italian who, in order to rise in the fascist party, has the mission of approaching an anti-fascist militant, an old friend and teacher of the protagonist. At Mussolini’s command, Clerici must gain the teacher’s trust and help orchestrate his murder. The work is divided between Marcello’s trip to accomplish his mission and flashbacks that show his life and interaction with the teacher before the plan is executed. The Godfather, which comes shortly after the Vietnam War, when sentiment among Americans was of disillusionment with the government, eventually bridges the gap and turns the Godfather into a charismatic figure. It is with this look that viewers have contact with Coppola’s mobster. Although it does not hide the violent side of the character, the work shows its paternalistic role.

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In The Conformist, Bertolucci analyzes how trauma remains alive in the human psyche to the point of creating cold and cruel citizens. For example, in one of the scenes in which we accompany Clerici on his way to his teacher the montage alternates between his trip and images of his childhood, showing the abuse he suffered as a child. There are also moments that develop his relationship with his insane asylum father. Bertolucci uses his cinematography skills as an analysis of the human condition, and the way the montage inserts his flashbacks, dryly breaking plans into which Marcello emerges thoughtfully, making the scenes a trip to the protagonist’s memories, that help the public understand the coldness and even the cruelty that Clerici gradually demonstrates. Similarly, in The Godfather, the saga of Vito began in the sea of ​​violence. The defenseless boy witnesses the cold-blooded murder of his mother during an attempt to avenge her husband’s death. Such brutal violence would surely mark the Godfather’s modus operandi. This, associated with other circumstances of life, becomes the drive of his choices. It is as if all his life he has tried to repair the loss and emptiness, using the discourse of justice to explain his criminal actions. To become Don Corleone, he understands that it takes some emotional influence and the exchange of favors between people. This sense of debt was more effective than fear, threat and violence. Furthermore, his obsessive pursuit of keeping all his children around is Corleone’s main mark. Unbeknownst to him, he tries to be the present father to everyone. It is possible to imagine an unconscious attempt not to leave anyone helpless as he felt throughout his childhood, which interestingly also embodies the imagery of his missing mother. Don Vito Corleone’s background can enter into the idea of a highly fragmented man who is afraid of losing his importance over others. The love of surrounding followers ensures that he is the sun god into which all his puppies are orbiting.

The Godfather makes use of cultural language that allows the film to move through virtually all strata of the population, dealing with topics such as family values, honor, friendship and state failure, with a historical approach of the phenomena of the time. These points are explored, and points to historical situations as a fundamental factor in the analysis of mafia films, as they interfere with the social and ideological functions of the genre. Thus, the messages are strategically distinct but symbolically intelligible. The American ethical crisis of the 1970s is the motto that permeates The Godfather’s narrative, like the rise of Fascism and lack of individuality permeates in The Conformist. The film’s narrative shows the displacement of dissatisfaction of a segment of the population, which transferred to organized crime the lack of belief in the current economic and political structure and thus reinvents the mafia myth, while Bertolucci’s masterpiece manages to evoke pathos of the work, especially at the historically inevitable end. As Bertolucci was once a member of the communist party, all his works find a strong criticism of fascism, although this criticism is always unilateral. It is necessary to understand that the popularity of certain productions can provide insight into the social environment in which they are born and circulate. In this way, it is possible to comprehend what is happening in contemporary cultures and societies.

The Conformist and The Godfather, more than 40 years after winning the spotlights, still impose themselves as an object of reference and intertextuality, one of the most characteristic practices of the cultural industry. Films depicting the structure of organized crime, especially that of Italian origin, began to appear in the early twentieth century. From the beginning of the genre, the narrative and ideological paradigm in mafia films has brought to light the evolution of organizational themes and gang stories and made the genre a blockbuster. However, it was The Godfather who stood out as one of the leading representatives of the category for imposing an ideological function on the mafia myth. It is advocated that The Godfather reinvents this myth and represents the permutation of a gender convention by exposing populist antagonisms, such as white-collar crimes or hostility toward ordinary service companies in the United States at the time of the film’s release. The mafia narrative, in the case of Coppola’s work, provides a strategic shift from all the anger generated by the American system and the unethical standards that led to the deterioration of life in the United States in the 1970s. In a similar tone, Bertolucci, with The Conformist, criticizes Italian fascism and the bourgeois society from pre-World War II. Bertolucci chooses to present such criticism through the protagonist, who lives perfectly at peace with his role in Italian fascism, not so much because of conviction, but because that is what he has only known. Fascism emerges as a system that lives on the lack of the personality of many, without the strength to opposite it, preferring the path of least resistance, that is, the blind fulfillment of orders just because it is easier to do so. Bertolucci works with an alienating effect, which was driven more by a distinctive late 60s combination of Freudian psychology and Marxist ideology. The movie is a type of essay on Fascism, from the point of view of human motivations (or lack thereof).

The success of Coppola’s film can be largely attributed to the empathy aroused by the stylization of violence. Although the main subject of the film is organized crime and all its ills, such as revenge and murder in the name of gaining power, the main character, Vito Corleone, awakens the imaginary of the recipients by presenting himself as a paternalistic figure and sensitive to the demands of your community. The reason that the mobster, though classified as a criminal, gained the sympathy of the spectating audience is also due to characteristics such as loyalty, friendship and dedication to the family, concepts absent in the American social and political scene of the 1970s, when the film was released, which contributed to create the charisma of the antihero. The film narrative, which helped to build the profile of the main leader of the criminal organization with the general public, reinforces the power of image construction and the way in which it is created. On a resembling note, The Conformist’s approach seems more social than anything else. Clerici is described, analyzed and dissected as the prototype of the ‘common man’, in the spirit of Italian ‘qualunquismo’, that is, distrustful of others and politics, isolated and easily manipulated. A conformed one, and how this conformist, a man of fear and obedience, who wishes to disappear in anonymity, leads himself to any act, even a crime in the name of a regime that, in the end, means nothing to him. Both fictional characters stand out from the canvas and inhabits the imagination of popular culture, making the two films phenomena of the cultural industry.


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