Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Dominique Sanda
Review By Greg Klymkiw
You're never going to see a more gorgeous movie about fascism than Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist.
He was only in his late 20s when he made this 1970 adaptation of Alberto Moravia's novel and the picture still crackles with urgency, dread and horror. It's furthermore infused with a winning combination of political/historical smarts, deeply considered intellectual rigour and an eye for heart-aching, stunning and dazzling visual artistry.
Working with ace cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now), there isn't a single composition, lighting scheme or camera move in the entire photoplay that's anything less than gorgeous. The sheer physical beauty in interior decor, architecture and the natural world is an effective and complex juxtaposition within the story of a man driven by pure ambition.
Ambitious or not, though, the main character Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) seems completely without a bone of real genuine passion in his body and is certainly bereft of such in his soul. His notions of passion seem rooted in a false construct of what he believes to be truly rapturous. He believes he must marry and "love" Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) because she herself is a lovely, politically clueless member of his "class" and as such, is going to be an ideal appendage to him as he attempts to scale the heights within the government of Italian totalitarian leader Benito Mussolini.
Working as a secret field operative for the secret police, Marcello's ambition is the kind of petty, small-minded desire for advancement that would plague any loathsomely tweedy bureaucrat in public or private life and bravely, That said, Jean-Louis Trintignant is Jean-Louis Trintignant, and as such, is always cool, no matter how big a scumbag he's playing and Bertolucci's screenplay and direction, by way of Moravia's novel, works overtime to transform Trintignant into a character who is totally and pathetically bereft of an inner life. The first big job Marcello happily accepts is to ingratiate himself upon a former university philosophy professor, one whom he was especially fond of as a youth, and set the old anti-fascist up for a political assassination.
Adding insult to injury (in terms of presenting a character seemingly bereft of any positive warmth or humanity), we learn that Marcello is a young man who comes from considerable money and breeding, yet his impetus always seems to hover at the lowest rung of the ladder of the bourgeoisie. That both Bertolucci and Trintignant manage to create a character that we're always on the verge of wanting to admire and/or root for is a testament to both men's gifts as director and actor respectively since Marcello is a preeminent symbol of shallow desires.
Bertolucci structures the story so that timelines are often blended twixt flashbacks, flash forwards and a current perspective. None of this is flashy, trick-pony nonsense, nor even confusing, but is, in fact, a canny way to keep us on our toes in terms of both the advancement of narrative as well as the slow, almost creepy crawly dread that infiltrates our own perspective upon Marcello's gradual descent which, is the very thing that reaches a nadir even within Marcello so that he begins to question both his motives and the morality of his actions.
|The trappings of class masking the horrors of Fascism|
It is, in fact, love - real passion - which consumes Marcello. He doesn't even appear to have much passion for fascism, all that drives him is petty ambition, something he eventually realizes when he begins to fall madly in love with his old professor's wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis fame), a stunningly ethereal beauty. Granted, it's her gossamer physical seductiveness that first attracts him rather than her intellect and inner life, which is virtually parallel to the aesthetically sumptuous trappings of upper class Italian society masking the evils of fascism.
|Anna's beauty masks her inner life|
Class, or at least the perceptions of class, clearly affect the carefully planted flashback of a much younger Marcello killing a family chauffeur who attempts to rape him. We even begin to doubt the perceived sexual exploitation between domestic "help" and the young man of means. It seems real enough, and perhaps even Marcello's murderous actions are justified, but Bertolucci plants enough doubt in our minds so that we respond to Marcello as someone swayed, if not exploited by class and perceptions of class, as opposed to any malevolence inherent in the chauffeur's attraction to him.
Even more powerful is the strange sense of redemption the film appears to work its way towards. When events converge to a point in the narrative when all seems dire, deeply sickening and outright horrific during the film's harrowing climax, it's finally not love which affects Marcello, but rather, recognizing a deep, real and eternal love within two other people. This is finally so profoundly moving that one can't help but shudder over a reality that could, given the circumstances, overtake any of us.
The Conformist finally leaves you completely winded. A film that presents a central figure who allows fascism to suck him dry of humanity is indeed the true horror Bertolucci lays bare for us to contemplate and feel. It's also what contributes to the picture's inherent qualities as a genuine masterpiece. Its exploration of fascism is ultimately as deeply felt and relevant today as it was when Bertolucci first made the film. We connect as individuals living in our own version of a totalitarian state masked as democracy and what finally moves us is following the inevitability of character who could well be any of us - No! Is us! Now and forever.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars
The Conformist is available on a gorgeously transferred Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber (Raro Video) which includes Adriano Aprá's illuminating one-hour documentary In the Shade of the Conformist. In Canada, VSC (Video Services Corp.) distributes this Kino Lorber/ Raro Video title.