The Conformist: Repressed Guilt, Duty as Denial of Agency, & the Birth (or Death) of the Ethical Subject
As we later learn, the call Marcello is expecting will provide the final confirmation for his mission to assassinate an anti-Fascist dissident. He is waiting on a real person, but the ambiguity of the faceless phone call hints at the true nature of Marcello's character. Even when the call comes through, the person on the other end is never named, as if it's not a person at all but rather an amorphous entity, as if Marcello is waiting on a call from Fascism itself. This ambiguous outsider, this indefinite somewhere else, provides an approximate formulation of the psychoanalytic concept of the Big Other:
"This symbolic space acts like a yardstick against which I can measure myself. This is why the big Other can be personified or reified in a single agent: the 'God' who watches over me from beyond, and over all real individuals, or the Cause that involves me (Freedom, Communism, Nation) and for which I am ready to give my life." (How to Read Lacan, 9)
The man on the other end of the phone—no name, no face, no identity—is exactly this personification of Marcello's Cause (in this case, Fascism). But Marcello is not only literally waiting for it to tell him what to do, he is also figuratively waiting for orders: as we will see throughout the rest of the movie, this expectation of a demand from the other, this relationship with a symbolic yardstick against which he can measure himself, is an inherent part of Marcello's character. I will map out this character using three foundational elements of identity from psychoanalysis: ideal ego, ego ideal, and superego.
"Lacan, however, introduces a precise distinction between these three terms: the 'ideal ego' stands for the idealized self-image of the subject (the way I would like to be, I would like others to see me); the ego ideal is the agency whose gaze I try to impress with my ego image, the big Other who watches over me and pushes me to give my best, the ideal I try to follow and actualize; and the superego is this same agency in its vengeful, sadistic, punishing aspect." (In Defense of Lost Causes, 89)
Ideal ego is our internal self-identification, how we see ourselves and would like others to see us. Ego ideal is one step removed: it is the place from which we see ourselves, the gaze we try to live up to and satisfy with our actions. Ego ideal is also an internalized aspect of the Big Other, our own internal vision of this external symbolic yardstick. Superego is similarly removed from the subject, and is the negative underside or opposite of ego ideal: instead of functioning as a model or idol, it is the punishing overseer who makes us feel guilty when we don't live up to our own expectations.
While this mysterious caller represents a cipher for Ego Ideal (the Big Other, Fascism), Marcello's Ideal Ego (his self image) is revealed in the very next scene. Talking to his best friend Italo (a blind man, a fact which will become important later), he announces his intention to get married. The reason for this, he says, is that he wants to "be normal." He wants other people to see him as a normal person, but also (and perhaps more importantly) he wants to be able to see himself as a normal person.
The idea of what it means to be "normal" is inextricably intertwined with the idea of the Big Other. There is no singular, codified standard for what constitutes a "normal" identity; it depends on your point of view—or, more precisely, the point of view from which you see yourself (Ego Ideal, Big Other). For Marcello, this point of view is revealed when Italo leaves the room in order to give a radio broadcast on the unifying principles bringing together the Fascist ideals of Italy and Germany (Mussolini and Hitler). He makes repeated reference to the "Fascist faith," to Fascism as a kind of religion, which reinforces its place as the "symbolic space" in which (it is perceived that) Mussolini watches over them like a God. This Fascist overseer is the internalized gaze that Marcello seeks to impress throughout the film.
The motif of characters being watched over or judged by a sort of religious figure continues into the following scene, where Marcello's fiancee Giulia confronts him with her desire to have him confess before their marriage. After this proposition, the couple discusses the question of whether anyone "really believes" in religion anymore, to which Giulia replies than the vast majority of people ("90%," even including the priests) no longer "really believe." Yet in spite of this, she still wants him to go to confession. This moment is a microcosm of the functioning of modern religious belief: we think that nobody "really believes" anymore, yet we continue to act as if we still believe anyway: we act in order to please the gaze of a (nonexistent) Big Other.
From here, we're introduced to Manganiello, the film's most clownish figure. While Marcello constantly references his desire to appear normal, to be this 90% who appear as if they believe even though they don't, Manganiello is this last 10% who "really believes"—although in his case his belief is in Fascism rather than religion. It is as if he's a direct representative of the Big Other, always following doctrine to the letter and without question. He's even introduced in a way that approximates this position: Marcello feels someone is following him (he feels a kind of disembodied gaze on him), and that someone turns out to be Manganiello. While he denies following Marcello (making an excuse about coincidentally going to the same place, despite that place being Marcello's morphine-addicted mother's house), he is constructed as a kind of watcher, an outside agent keeping his eyes on Marcello, exactly as a representative of the Big Other would.
At this point in the story, we meet Marcello's father at the insane asylum where he lives, and after a flashback to Marcello’s early childhood, we begin to understand why he feels anything but normal. Not only does he have a drug-addicted mother and a mentally unstable father, but when he was a young boy he had a homosexual encounter with a much older man whom he then killed (they were role-playing with a pistol). His foundational sexual experience is one that involves perversion and murder, one that makes him feel abnormal by default, and as he admits to the priest during his confession, he found pleasure in the eroticism of the act before the shock of the accidental shooting that followed.
This is the core of Marcello, the key that unlocks his identity. Because of this trauma, he associates his own sexual enjoyment with a deep feeling of guilt at the accidental death of his first sexual partner. This completes the psychoanalytic triangle of his identity: his ideal ego (his idealized self-image, how he wants to be seen by others and by himself) is normalcy, his desire to be "normal"; his ego ideal (his internalized model or gaze for this identity, the place from which he wants to be seen) is Fascism, the governing principle of the nation; and his superego (the agency which punishes him with guilt for not living up to the standards of his ideal ego and ego ideal) is sexuality, his enjoyment in perverse pleasure.
The primary characteristic that runs through all three of these coordinates is Marcello's constant perception of external judgment. The motive driving all of his actions is his worry that there's someone watching him and measuring his worth as a human being, and his central desire is to rid himself of that watchful gaze (it's no coincidence that his best friend is blind). He unconsciously self-identifies as a deviant, someone aroused by perverse sexual acts, and as a result he feels the presence of an invisible eye watching him at all times. We can see now why he would be interested in joining the Fascists: on the surface he has joined an "organization that hunts down subversives," but his real desire is to hunt down the subversive within himself.
The problem with Marcello's quest to rid himself of the gaze of the Big Other is that it's impossible to accomplish. This perceived gaze of the Big Other (and the correlative punishment of the superego), the primary antagonist for Marcello's action and forward momentum in the plot, is only an internalized perception. Even though it is codified in a concrete agency outside himself (Fascism, Mussolini) and psychologically manifested in Marcello's actions, the Big Other does not exist:
"In spite of all its grounding power, the big Other is fragile, insubstantial, properly virtual, in the sense that its status is that of a subjective presupposition It exists only in so far as subjects act as if it exists... [I]t is the substance of the individuals who recognize themselves in it… something for which these individuals are ready to give their lives, yet the only thing that really exists are these individuals and their activity, so this substance is actual only in so far as individuals believe in it and act accordingly." (How to Read Lacan, 10)
There is no Big Other; it exists only in the mind, only as long as Marcello believes that it exists. His belief is an irreducible part of his identity, the reason behind all of his actions (his "normal" marriage, his blind friend, his political affiliation), but it does not exist outside of him. This non-existence is visually foregrounded in the vast emptiness of every Fascist-affiliated hall and monument, and it is thematically established in the scene where Marcello and Giulia discuss the fact that no one "really believes" in Christianity anymore. We even see disembodied symbols being carried around as if they have no fixed place, and there’s a famous shot in which Manganiello (the direct agent of this empty Big Other) sits down behind a tree, vanishing from sight and seeming to disappear from existence.
However, as much as Marcello wants to rid himself of this gaze of the Big Other (as he says himself, "I want to be excused by society"), as much as this desire regulates his entire being, he cannot. While he doesn't want to be bothered by its moral judgment, his belief in the Big Other is the only thing that concretely grounds his own moral compass. It may not exist in external reality, but it is an inextricable part of his internal reality. It is the symbolic gaze through which he sees and understands the world, and without it his world would fall apart.
Soon after his marriage, Marcello is confronted indirectly with this nonexistence of the Big Other. While on his honeymoon, Marcello meets Anna Quadri, the wife of the anti-Fascist dissident Marcello is on assignment to assassinate (as the good Fascist that he wants to be, Marcello uses his honeymoon as a cover for political business). Anna fascinates Marcello initially because she doesn't treat him with respect (speaking to him in French instead of his native Italian, which she speaks to his wife), but this simple provocation turns out to be the tip of a much deeper hostility: Anna is an anti-Fascist, and she attempts to put Marcello face to face with the dark underside of his political beliefs (presenting him with stories of torture, etc.).
This troubles Marcello, not because he didn't know about the torture happening in his country (he did), but because Anna actually believes that the torture was wrong. A true Fascist would know (through his belief in the Big Other) that the tortures were committed with "good" intentions (e.g. to weed out revolutionaries, to quiet discontent), but Anna is not a Fascist, and this confrontation hints to Marcello at the nonexistence of the Big Other (i.e. if Anna doesn't believe, there's a potential world in which he doesn't need to either).
Marcello’s belief in the Big Other is necessary for him to continue going about his everyday life because it tells him that there is an objective point from which his actions have meaning (i.e. under Fascism), when in reality no such place exists outside of his mind (his actions are abhorrent to Anna). His actions feel externally justified, but Anna's disgust calls into question the nature of that justification and points toward its subjective nature (i.e. it's only true for Marcello). But while the idea of a world without objective truth is inherently frightening, its very lack of objectivity grounds the possibility for an ethics outside of the Big Other:
"We can see now why Lacan's motto 'il n'y a pas de grand Autre' (there is no big Other) brings us to the very core of the ethical problematic: what it excludes is precisely... the idea that somewhere... there must be a standard which allows us to take a measure of our acts and pronounce their 'true meaning,' their true ethical status...The harshness of Lacanian ethics is that it demands that we thoroughly relinquish this reference—and its further wager is that, not only does this abdication not leave us in the grip of an ethical insecurity of relativism, or even undermine the very foundation of ethical activity, but that renouncing the guarantee of some big Other is the very condition of a truly autonomous ethics." (In Defense of Lost Causes, 224–5)
It's frightening to think that the Big Other does not exist because its existence provides the foundation for the meaning of our actions, but it is precisely this objectively meaningless reality that opens up the possibility for true meaning, for true ethics. Without this reference to an external guarantee that our actions have meaning, we are forced to subjectively account for our actions, and this is exactly the underlying cause of Marcello's desperate clinging to the Big Other’s existence.
While Marcello is constantly bothered by the presence of the Big Other's gaze, he wouldn't be able to take a single step forward without his belief in its existence guiding him. He doesn't like the way it makes him feel judged, but he relies on the reassurance that it offers. Without the Big Other, he would be hopeless, he would lose his psychological grounding and risk drifting into psychosis. However, it is precisely this ungrounded, potentially psychotic mental state which is necessary to create the possibility for autonomous ethical agency—and it is precisely this mental state that Marcello will find himself reaching as his journey continues.
From the very beginning of their meeting with Marcello, Professor Quadri and his wife Anna have questioned the veracity of his faith in Fascism. Where Anna wants him to face its atrocities and give it up, the Professor feels he was never a true believer to begin with—a reasonable belief, after all, since Marcello seems more concerned with purging himself and his past than in actively pursuing Fascist interests. Marcello gradually grows attached to the Quadris (particularly Anna) and becomes indecisive about his mission, at one moment convinced he'll carry it out and at another urging Anna to leave in order to avoid her own death. This indecision is the first sign that Marcello's belief in the Big Other is waning: he is no longer blindly following Fascist doctrine.
This decline reaches its crisis point when Marcello is forced to decide between Fascism and his new friends. In a moment of impotent rage at Professor Quadri (a result of his questioning the truth of Marcello's conviction), he gives a note to Manganiello alerting Fascist agents to their location, a signal to kill the Quadris. Marcello follows as Anna and her husband drive out to the place where he knows they will be ambushed, unsure whether he wants to help them or the Fascists. The entire film is deceptively structured around this one moment: the opening shot of the room with the intermittently flashing red light shows Marcello waiting for the call to tell him that the Quadris have left, and the rest of the film is structured as a series of flashbacks which always return to this point in time. This is the one crucial moment for Marcello.
As the Quadris drive their car into the country, Marcello and Manganiello never far behind, another car coming the other direction collides with them. Fascist agents emerge from the forest, threatening Anna and the Professor, and Marcello is forced to decide which side he will take: will he help Anna escape, or will he help the Fascists kill her? Will he abandon his Fascist mission, turning against the Big Other whose gaze he spent the whole movie trying to impress, or will his belief remain absolute? This moment of choice either to side with the Big Other or forsake its existence is inseparably bound up with the assumption of ethical agency:
"[T]he moral Law does not tell me what my duty is, it merely tells me that I should accomplish my duty, and so leaves the space open for empty voluntarism (whatever I decide to be my duty is my duty). However, far from being a limitation, this very feature brings us to the core of Kantian ethical autonomy: it is not possible to derive the concrete norms I have to follow in my specific situation from the moral Law itself—which means that it is the subject himself who has to assume the responsibility for translating the abstract injunction of the moral Law into a series of concrete obligations. The full acceptance of this paradox compels us to reject any reference to duty as an excuse: 'I know this is heavy and can be painful, but what can I do, this is my duty...' Kant's ethics of unconditional duty is often taken as justifying such an attitude... However, the aim of Kant's emphasis on the subject's full moral autonomy and responsibility is precisely to prevent any such maneuver of shifting the blame onto some figure of the Big Other." (Defense of Lost Causes, 225–6)
There is nothing compelling Marcello to be a Fascist, no moral obligation telling him that he should or should not side with a particular political party. The moral Law (the categorical imperative) states merely that you must do your duty, whatever you choose that duty to be—but that you must also assume full responsibility for that choice. This responsibility for the subject's decision is what keeps the moral Law from justifying atrocities based on the famous "just doing my duty" excuse (it was their choice to assume that duty)—and this responsibility is precisely what Marcello is unable to accept.
As the Fascists bear down on Anna, Marcello sits in his car, inactive, indecisive, the same way he sat in the flashing red room at the beginning of the film, as if he's waiting for someone to tell him what to do. He doesn’t pick up his gun, and he doesn't open his door. He refuses the responsibility of choosing what his duty will be (to help Anna or to help the Fascists), and by doing so he refuses the call to true ethical agency. Through this conflict within Marcello, the film depicts the conflict inherent to the creation of the ethical subject as such.
Smash cut to a few years later: Marcello lives with his wife Giulia and their young child, and they're listening to a radio broadcast of Benito Mussolini's replacement as Prime Minister. The place from which Marcello looked at and understood himself, the symbolic yardstick against which he measured his actions has been deposed. Marcello goes out with Italo, his blind friend, but Giulia stops him on the way out, worrying that he'll be at risk now that the Fascists are out of power. He replies with exactly the excuse of "just doing his duty" that signifies his inability to accept ethical agency for his actions: "I won't be in danger. After all, what have I done? My duty."
Outside, where the disembodied symbols from earlier in the film are being dragged through the street (providing literal evidence of the Big Other's beheading), Marcello and Italo encounter Lino, the man with whom Marcello had his perverted childhood sexual encounter. Lino's existence, the fact that he's not dead, shows Marcello that part of the foundation on which he built his identity is false. He comes face to face with the figure that stands for his guilty conscience, his superego, and he discovers that he's been lying to himself.
This direct meeting with the embodiment of his superego and the discovery of the lie at the very core of his being is too much for Marcello to handle, and he finally breaks down: he denounces both Lino and Italo as Fascist conspirators, shouting at the top of his lungs to no one in particular, hoping the Big Other will hear him, a desperate final grasp at the disappearing threads of his belief. Exhausted, he collapses and slowly looks directly into the camera: he finally sees that the lack in the Big Other matches his own. He sees that there is no Big Other, no external guarantee for the meaning of his actions. Without the psycho-symbolic structure that kept him rooted in his everyday existence, and without the ability to accept responsibility for his own ethical agency, he has become psychologically ungrounded. On that note, the film ends.