I know I broadcast my love for Italian filmmakers way too frequently on this site, but to be square with you, I can’t count Bernardo Bertolucci as a beloved director. I can, however, count an early Bertolucci movie as one of my all-time favorite films (it’s weird how that works sometimes), and while The Conformist has its following in Europe and won its share of awards, it lives in the margins of North American consciousness in part because it’s not the most accessible little number. But, O my brothers, it’s so so so worth giving it a shot if you haven’t already, even if you’re not a fan of self-consciously stylized European productions. If you go weak at the knees for perfect composition, 1930s production design, or the spare underworlds of Jean-Pierre Melville, The Conformist will probably speak to you. It spoke to Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet, who petitioned to have it released in the US when a distributor deemed it “over the heads” of American audiences (prove that officious goober wrong!). It spoke to the Coen brothers 20 years on; their Miller’s Crossing owes much to Bertolucci’s winter-woods assassination scene, and to the French New Wave influence that informs both The Conformist and the Coens’ work. This movie is eye candy, brain candy, clothes candy, and cinephile candy wrapped up together in glossy cellophane, and it’s tailor-made for those with eclectic movie tastes.
Based on Moravia’s 1947 novel and released in 1970, The Conformist is lightning in a bottle. It’s kismet. It’s what happens when a director surrounds himself with mind-boggling talent and listens to everyone’s advice which — against all odds — results in harmony, not chaos. The most important contributor is cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who had already lensed The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and who would go on to lens Apocalypse Now. I worship the ground Storaro treads. No one can balance a frame the way he can, or suck a wide set into a pin-hole and lose nothing, or frame an actor like a piece of art, or make flat surfaces throb. Bertolucci was also lucky enough to snag Ferdinando Scarfiotti, the art director who lavished mood all over Death in Venice. Scarfiotti’s set in The Conformist is a Kafka-scape pierced by Storaro’s exaggerated light and shadow. It is art deco meets art nouveau meets beauty too exquisite to articulate in a 1000-word retrospective. What’s more, the art direction is synchronized with the cinematography; that is, the mise en scène tangibly replicates the lighting design (and vice versa), and the result is outstanding. Even Bertolucci’s assistant director, Aldo Lado, would go on to become one of the better giallo directors of the 1970s thanks to his instincts for visuals and atmosphere, and Bertolucci praises his editor, Franco “Kim” Arcalli, for rearranging a linear narrative into a tense structure of frame story and flashbacks.
Fans of Melville’s Le Samouraï will scent the familiar in The Conformist, which tells the story of a man desperate to dissolve into the crowd as a way to overcome his gnawing sense of difference. Like Jef Costello, The Conformist’s anti-hero is strapped upright in a trenchcoat and fedora, determined to kill his target while looking his natty best. Like Costello, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) has a pleasant but unremarkable face, a mistrust of others, and a contained rage that escapes his core through the barrel of a gun. Unlike Costello, Clerici isn’t a rogue who represents an underworld; instead, he’s a toy of Mussolini’s regime who pairs up with a Fascist assassin to root out dissenters. Their target is Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), who lives in exile in Paris and mimeographs anti-Fascist pamphlets with his French wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda). The frame story — Clerici and partner en route to kill Quadri — surrounds flashbacks that illuminate Clerici’s past: his joining of the Fascist party; his engagement and marriage to the flighty, oblivious Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli); his molestation as a child by a chauffeur, and the chauffeur’s traumatic murder; his problems with his rotting aristo mother and mentally ill father; and his recent visit to Professor Quadri while honeymooning with Giulia, where he reminisces with his one-time teacher and plots the man’s assassination. While Quadri is surveilled by Clerici, Clerici is surveilled by his partner Manganiello (Gastone Moschin), a bruiser and longtime party member charged with ensuring that Clerici is exactly what he claims to be: a loyal blackshirt and devout conformist.
It helps to watch this film for the first time with a narrative crib note (handily provided above), because the flashing backward and forward isn’t telegraphed as boldly as it normally is in other films of this structure. The story itself is incredibly subtle in contrast to the movie’s exaggerated art direction, blocking, framing, lighting, and composition, and viewers have to work to situate themselves and parse out any given scene’s relevance. Repeat viewings reveal that both the structure and story are immaculate and full; repeat viewings allow us to get over the film’s arresting aesthetic long enough to pay attention to the plot. Even if the narrative poses no challenge, it’s best to bone up on Fascist Italy beforehand; the film depends on our having a grasp of that historical climate to make part of its meaning. Some viewers might also be tested by the technical exaggerations I just catalogued (I was saying about stylized), which are unapologetically thematic. They convey a sense of humans trapped in a world gone out of whack in surreal political times. It doesn’t matter how straight and trim the architecture might be in a bureaucratic stronghold — that architecture still devours the people it encases, and it almost always acts as a metaphor for state of mind, or government oppression, or basement-dwelling ideals. Some people might also be turned off by the inescapable dubbing which — as always — affects how the acting is perceived (I find the Italian dubbing less grating than the English, but you may disagree). Unlike Italian genre movies, though, the acting in The Conformist — a significant, well-funded production — is uniformly topnotch, and it would be a shame to let a dub job fool anyone into thinking otherwise.
Trintignant gives a performance that is steady on the surface and trembling underneath; he starts at sounds, lets loose emotion when he least expects to, and labors to steel himself into a perfect mold of conformity and obedience. Conformity, here, equals morality — conformity is survival. Homosexual and homicidal guilt might be gumming up his cogs, but Clerici manages to align himself with Giulia, a porcelain doll whose domain extends no further than music, dance and clothes. If she makes light of Mussolini’s mandate, it’s only because she’s too shallow to care about the larger world. She’s innocuous, apolitical, and a perfect beard for Clerici, who’s fighting “to build a life that’s normal” and to embody the party’s “virtues of similarity and reciprocity.” Clerici’s arc projects off that one childhood incident, where his ambivalence towards Lino, the seductive chauffeur (Pierre Clémenti), is about where it realistically might be for a thirteen-year-old boy curious (on the one hand) about his own nascent desires, but conscious (on the other) that engaging in man-boy love with a molester who schemed him into an attic bedroom might be at his disadvantage. The starched white sheets Lino and Marcello run through on the way to that bedroom aren’t just convenient symbols of the child’s fragile purity. They’re also part of the film’s visual achievement in composition and tone. It’s an indelible scene that haunts not just Clerici’s memory but our own — as cinematically beautiful in design as it is unsettling in content.
Molestation seems to be a trope in The Conformist. While Clerici is bedeviled by his guilt over the Lino episode, Giulia divulges that she was seduced by a sixty-year-old lawyer when she was a teen. Moments into their honeymoon, she coyly tells Clerici that the lawyer had his way with her for years, and she doesn’t deny that she enjoyed their affair. Whether she did or didn’t — whether her arousal was genuine or a function of patriarchal sublimation — can’t be blamed on Bertolucci’s notorious difficulty with female characters. It’s actually relevant to the story. Both relationships (Marcello’s and Lino’s, Giulia’s and the lawyer’s) are the opposite of conformist, and their molester/victim dyad mirrors the advantage and control authority figures have over the vulnerable. The Italians are no strangers to the rape/Fascism metaphor (see Salo: 120 Days of Sodom), so the molestations here likely represent the powerlessness and (possibly, in this case) the thrill some citizens feel in the grip of political tyranny. In any case, Clerici reacts to Giulia’s news by assimilating her molestation into their sex life — by turning a negative into a positive, you might say, and using her descriptions of the abuse as foreplay. It might seem inappropriate, but it’s an attempt on the parts of Clerici and Giulia to wrest whatever iota of autonomy they can for themselves, and for a little while, at least, they aren’t anybody’s pawns.
There are too many remarkable moments in The Conformist to discuss here — each scene is its own perfectly lit, perfectly composed and dressed Chinese box — but I can’t drop the curtain without spotlighting the assassination sequence. The Lino scene, the Allegory of the Cave scene (best cinematic use of Plato ever), and the ballroom scene (where Anna and Giulia shimmy together in a dance hall squeezed by a lapis night sky) are all worth lingering over. But the assassination sequence is iconic, and it contains an extraordinary moment of acting. Sanda (don’t hold it against her) is a Paris Hilton doppelganger — if Hilton had better cheekbones and an ounce of grace or talent. Poured into vintage 1930s costumes, forehead smooth as an egg and eyes like oil pits, Anna curls the edges of the screen with her charisma. Clerici is immediately drawn to her and asks her to run away with him to Brazil; Anna embodies an individualism Clerici can’t practice himself, so her appeal is more than physical. But Anna is devoted to her dissenter husband. Her reaction to Quadri’s killing and her own dire straits in the still, creaking forest is pure anguish. Her performance is harrowing, and her expresions are heartbreaking as she presses against Clerici’s car, realizing that her new flame plans to let her die in the snow. I haven’t seen emotional agony pulled so taut anywhere else, ever; Anna’s moment is Mussolini’s reign distilled to a cinematic point.
Bertolucci’s movie makes its rounds through film schools on account of its extreme dedication to detail, but it’s also more than the sum of its parts. It’s absorbing, layered, and it’s executed in both subtle and overstated ways — a potent combination of approaches. It has solid characterization and story and theme, it has tension, politics, sex and even prurience, and these are indispensable, but they’re all elements we can find in half-decent novels. If I tend to focus on visuals a little too much and little too often, it’s because, when it comes to movies, the visuals really should matter, and not just because they get a prop or a person from A to B. The films that tend to catch my attention are the films that truly understand their medium and offer what novels never can. They exploit their images fully and harness them to tell a story above and beyond what the narrative reveals; they delight us with startling combinations of color, shadow, and composition. The Conformist is a lesson in filmmaking, not just — as many movies are — storytelling. Stories we can get in books, but a moving painting is a gift only the most visually obsessive filmmakers can give us. Watching The Conformist, it’s evident that each shot was weighed not just to tell part of the story or, you know, get the lighting and sound right, but to produce something viewers are compelled to linger over frame by frame, like a Hogarth panel. We need time to take every shot in. Few movies make us want to slow things down and study them nose-close; most are designed to hurry us forward and make us eager for the next scene. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do — sometimes a delicate or even disappearing mise en scène is more appropriate — but it’s not the only way to make a movie, or the only way to get our blood up. Note the overlapping pastel blooms in the engagement party scene, or the way Paris vanishes in a wall of mist behind the Eiffel tower, or Storaro’s framing of Giulia and Anna among a row of boutiques, and tell me this isn’t something a little above and beyond. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published as part of Pajiba.com’s Underappreciated Gems series, on July 24, 2008.)