Friday, October 21, 2011

Essay: Niche European Films and their Depiction of Social Conformity/Rejection

Note: This is a slightly reworked university essay I wrote a few years ago. Utilising several films as examples, I will attempt to argue that films are about the same life challenges that everyone faces: the creation of individual identity; the separation from the parent; and the struggle to overcome the context you were born into in order to become an autonomous person.

The twentieth century has been a tumultuous period for many European nations, as a number of horrific stages of political empowerment, genocide, warfare and class struggle have come to pass. As a result, the world has been considerably altered by the cause and effect of these important periods of political and cultural change. As a document, a number of essential films have been made about these historical periods.

Many of the individuals in these films have been shown in a struggle against a changing political regime, or forced to make a choice as to whether to accept the life they are born into or choose to resist against it. It is the various examinations of these individuals that I will attempt to discuss in this article. Each individual seeks to overcome the context of their birth and become an autonomous person, making their own decisions to aid not only the fate of themselves but also the future of their nation.

The first of these films is Padre Padrone (1977), an Italian film by the Taviani brothers that examines the story of Gavino Ledda, and traces significant episodes dramatising his childhood, growth to manhood and the eventual education that transforms him from an inarticulate shepherd boy to eventual author. Padre Padrone is set in Sardinia, and patiently constructs and exposes the peasant life of the young boy through a series of early scenes showing a brutal ritual of survival that leaves Gavino close to death.

The Taviani's have said that Gavino's father and the hills of Sardinia "represent a brutally paternalistic conditioning process in Gavino's school of hard knocks." Gavino is dragged out of class and pushed into a volatile world, ruled by his father's hand and word. It is the contrast of his father's obsessive commitment to power, and Gavino's growing awareness and increasing interest of the 'outside' modern world (through his discovery of music and his trade for the accordion) that is the thematic centre of the film.

Gavino's rebelliousness is certainly characteristic of other young men from poor regions of Italy, but it is the army, where he learns the true power of language, that intervenes to end what may have been a repetition of his father's career as a shepherd. Language is associated with a form of education that enables individuals to develop new ways of 'understanding' and 'altering' their world. Gavino's decision to go to university provokes a confrontation with his father that ultimately provides hope of freedm, however the film is ambiguous in its conclusion, leaving the viewer with the feeling that no conflict has really been resolved.

In Carlos Saura's Cria Cuervos, made in 1975, we are thrown into context of a period shortly after the death of General Franco. The central character is Ana, one of three young girls in a middle class/bourgeois family. With the death of her father, a high-ranking military man, and earlier passing of her mother, Ana's aunt is left to take care of her and her sisters. With the absence of a paternal figure for almost the entire film (with the exception of Ana's hallucinations of her mother and father), the women are the strongest figures of the household, the only space at thus time where women could express themselves in a position of power. We are shown three generations of Spanish women during the film, revealed as almost a funnel where the next generation, if raised properly, will be a model citizen and follow in the footsteps of their mother or primary maternal carer.

We see, throughout the film, that Ana is resisting this conformity. To avenge her mother's death we see Ana (in her hyper-reality) attempt to kill her father, and then later her aunt, who she convicts of attempting to overturn her mother's position in the household. Ana is both a victim of a hostile adult world and potentially a murderous monster capable of patricide. Without a firm hand to hold hers we see that Ana is a raven (which refers to the title, which means 'raise ravens') capable of 'plucking out the eyes' of the newly desired Democratic society the same way that we see Gavino resist his father's extremely poor shepherd world in Padre Padrone.

In Joseph Von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930) and Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle (1958) we are given contexts of particular times of industrial and consumerist change in Germany and France respectively. Each of these worlds, the new and the past, are visibly demarcated by the mise-en-scene, by the use of colour (in Mon Oncle) and by style and tone. In The Blue Angel we see the young boys escaping the institutional authority of their schooling to face the world of popular culture and rising consumerism, by attending the night shows at the club, 'The Blue Angel', a world ruled by Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich). The Professor (Emil Jannings), who views this modernised world as a threat, seeks to punish his boys for their rebellion, but soon becomes seduced by the world of 'The Blue Angel'.

In Mon Oncle we once again see two opposing worlds, the old-fashioned French values of Monsieur Hulot versus the ultra modern values of his sister, Madame Arpel. Hulot attempts to find comfort in the New World, but as a result has to re-order things to be able to 'fit in' - for example, turning the 'useless' couch into a bed. The Arpel's son Gerard, is another resister to this new mechanical world. He and his friends play in the area between the two world's called 'no-mans land', where they respond to whatever is human and real, regardless of their social acceptability. Hulot demonstrates that it is still possible to maintain one's own brand of independence in a rejection of times of cultural change.

The Conformist (197), in my opinion the most impressive film to be included here, is also perhaps the most complex in relation to this analysis. The central character, Marcello Clerici, seeks to obliterate his sense of deviancy (developed through a sexual encounter in his youth with a chauffeur named Lino) by conforming to the social mores and political ideology of 1930's Italy; integrating himself with the Fascist hierarchy by volunteering for a counter-intelligence mission to be carried out in Paris. He also marries an ordinary petty-bourgeois woman (Guilia) to possibly hide his repressed homosexuality. The film ends with Marcello's final moment of psychic self-revelation and acceptance, as he turns toward a young male prostitute with pederastic intent. Marcello's shadowed persona is represented in one scene in which Venetian blinds cast parallel shadows over his body, reminiscent of classic film noir.

The narrative is about perception, identification, separation and loss and the way that characters see themselves and others and are confused by the sight of both. Marcello's troubled existence is re-enforced by Bertolucci as we are revealed first to his mother, a dissolute drug addict who lives in a decaying mansion with her chauffeur, and then his father, an ex-Fascist dictator, now barely surviving at a mental hospital. The Conformist is a film about a character's perception, the way things are seen and not seen, with a formal structure that deliberates this problem, and invites the spectator to participate in this character's perception of Italy in this period. Bertolucci's films are about a male individual who must confront the oppressive social order, either embracing it, as Clerici does in The Conformist and as Lucien boldly yet naively embraces in Lacombe, Lucien (Louis Malle, 1974), or attempting to resist conformity, which we identify with in the four aforementioned films.

It is interesting to discuss that all these films, with the exception of The Conformist, centre the struggle on young characters, seeking to conform to or escape the context of their existence. But even Clerici, who believes he killed a man when he was a boy, and seeks to lead a normal life against his true identity, reveals the mystery of his life at the conclusion. Can we attribute this to these other characters? Do any of them find their true social position, their autonomy as individuals? This is certainly not the case for Lucien, whom is eventually arrested and executed for siding with the German Police. Perhaps only Hulot and Gerard in Mon Oncle accept their view of the world, even if it is in decline.

In my view, these films send an ambiguous message, and reach no grounds of closure. It's an interesting direction to view these significant historical periods, and the various ways each nation understood their position with the rest of the world - right down to the seemingly insignificant individual. The films are a document of an individual's experience (though in the form of a fictional narrative) during these periods, but are also a reflection of the life challenges that millions of other people also faced.


  1. I love The Conformist. In fact, I think it's my favorite film by Bertolucci so far. I just love the study of a man trying to figure what to do and everything he's repressing in his life. I own the DVD (which is currently out of print) of the expanded version of the film that included the lost blind dance scene. I should re-do my old review and turn it into something new if I decide to do it. Great essay BTW.

  2. I have only seen The Conformist once (at University) but I thought it was just superb. I need to see more by Bertolucci but from my understanding this is his best work. I might make him a future DOTM. I have never seen the DVD in a store or library, ever! Thanks for the comment!

  3. I'm printing out this essay to read when I have more time and to share with my homeschooled teen. Thank you!

  4. Wow! I feel so honoured that you would use an essay of mine to assist in your homeschooling. I hope you find it interesting and beneficial Steph :-)