I understand the metaphorical way that Bertolucci, as the writer (adapting from Alberto Moravia's 1951 novel), constructs the film as showing what could lead to someone becoming a Fascist and leading to the rise of Fascism as a whole, but Clerici, as our protagonist, is not a compelling character. But actually, now that I think about it, he's not really a blank slate either. That could've worked better. We get senses of Marcello, sketches of him and his past. But in the Wikipedia page entry for the novel it says:
"Marcello spends the entire novel in a search for what he perceives to be a normal life - normal activities, a normal appearance, normal emotions, and so on. However, he confuses normality with conformity, and in his quest to conform, subjugates his already-repressed emotions. When the natural course of his life presents him with ethical dilemmas - the assignment to betray Professor Quadri, his attraction to women other than his wife - he is ill-prepared to deal with them."
That sounds like a fascinating character, and we get all of that in the movie as well. So why didn't I find this movie very interesting to watch? Certainly I was tired when I watched it, but that hasn't stopped movies from enthralling me before. I often found myself overwhelmed at this movie's beauty, but bored by our main character. And I'm not really sure why.
Certainly, the visuals of this astonishingly high level kept my interest. You can see a lot of influence here on Coppola's work in the Godfather movies. From the clothes and sets, to some of the camera placements and movements. Bertolucci's camera seemed to be ever moving, ever expanding and always fascinating.
Perhaps this movie needs a revisit some day. I feel like I gave it a fair shake, but as I'm writing this I feel like maybe this was deeper than my mind is giving it credit for and I just wasn't seeing it during viewing. Only time will tell.