The late Bernardo Bertolucci’s best film: “The Conformist”

“Everybody wants to be different, and you want to be the same as everybody” — Italo

I think that “Il Conformista” (The Conformist, 1970) is Bernardo Bertolucci’s (1941-2018) masterpiece—not his multi-Oscar-winning “The Last Emperor” or his once-sensational “The Last Tango in Paris” or even his early and brilliant modern-dress version of The Charterhouse of Parma, “Before the Revolution.” “The Conformist,” Bertolucci’s fourth feature film,” is one of the most visually designed films every made—to the extent that the compositions, sets, and color schemes tend to overwhelm Alberto Moravia’s story of an authority-seeking personality, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant (Red, Z, Amour) in a clenched/repressed portrayal that seems to have come out of the etiological model of Wilhelm Reich).


Those not knowing the story from Moravia’s once famous (and recently reprinted novel) may lose their bearings in the unmarked flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. Bertolucci (et al.) obey the admonition to show, not tell, though there is some exposition in several scenes (which lead to some of the flashbacks). The primary adolescent trauma/guilt is made visible, and the adult crime is made way too visible IMO. And there are two bravura portrayals of Clerici trapped in crowds whose emotions he does not share but whose density makes getting out impossible.

I could go on for pages just listing the eye-popping visual compositions, but will confine myself to mentioning two: the Paris-bound train with reflections and totally saturated colors (shifting from orange to blue) outside the window and the apartment of Clerici’s fiancee, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli [Divorce Italian Style, Seduced and Abandoned, and Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty]), She is wearing a white dress with thick black v-lines and the room is illuminated by horizontal lights from the Venetian blinds.

Bertolucci’s usual cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who also shot “Apocalypse Now” and “Reds”) is a genius uninhibited by realisms (neo- or any other kind), Ditto for set designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti. Was either of them even nominated for an Oscar for their astounding accomplishments? No. The art direction Oscar went to the unmemorable “Nicholas and Alexander,” the cinematography one went to a talented cinematography, Oswald Morris, for the inferior (to “The Conformist”) “Fiddler on the Roof.” The only Oscar nomination “The Conformist” garnishes was one to Bertolucci for adapted screenplay. The Italian entry for Best Foreign-Language Film that year was “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (which shared Dominque Sanda with “The Conformist” and also had very striking set designs and looked back at the dark days of fascism in Italy…and won the award).


Oh, yes, the plot. Putting it into chronological order, the 13-year-old Clerici felt great guilt (partly blaming himself for attempted abuse) and sought to be normal. Given what we see of his parents (twenty or so years later, in 1938) this was quite a challenge: the father was certified crazy and the mother became a morphine addict, supplied and otherwise serviced by her Japanese chauffeur. Clerici’s conformism included supporting the regime in power (Mussolini’s). We don’t know/see what the basis of Clerici’s friendship with a blind fascist (José Quaglio) is, but the friend recommends Clerici for a job with the secret police. Clerici is issued a pistol, with which he plays as he had when he was 13. He is sent off to Paris to assassinate a dissident, whose student Clerici had been before Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) exiled himself to Paris.

Plot spoiler alert

Clerici combines his assassination mission with his honeymoon. Before the church wedding, he has to go to confession—for the first time since his first communion, and makes explicit that he is marrying the lively, conventional bourgeois Giulia to appear “normal.”

When he gets to Paris (after a very color-saturated train trip that I’ve already mentioned) he goes to meet Quadri and is besotted by Quadri’s wife, the stunning and more-than-a-little perverse Anna (Dominique Sanda [who also starred in Bertolucci’s “1900”]) who toys with seducing Giulia and (very rightly!) mistrusts Clerici.


It seems to me that Clerici is following orders which were replaced, but this provides the ultra-bleu Paris sequences. It also seems to me that the assassination could have been accomplished much more easily. I don’t remember if Moravia made it so gruesome, but strongly suspect that the sadism is as much Bertolucci’s as the assassins’.

Even within a plot-spoiler alert, I won’t reveal the compounding ironies of the conclusion. Of course, they are visually striking, including a bust of Mussolini that has been pulled down and almost hits Clerici. There are subtle aspects of the film, but also some symbolism that makes me laugh at its uninhibited outrageousness. (There are also compositions so stylized that they make me laugh—in appreciation rather than in mockery, I want to stress: if you’re going to stylize, you might as well go all out, and Bertolucci et al. do!)

After hearing broadcast of Mussolini’s resignation, Clerici goes out into the street to “see how a dictatorship falls.” The mob differs little from the one(s) worshipped Il Duce. This is the second time Clerici is trapped (the first on the dancefloor in Paris). After the shock of finding out that he had not killed Lino (a now peroxided ruin of his former glamorous self, but still speaking of a kimono in luring sexual prey), it seems that Clerici is ready to walk on the homosexual side (on a night of carnivalesque celebration for the end of the fascist dictatorship Clerici has served). This final shot is ambiguous.

End plot-spoiler alert

I have no doubt that “The Conformist” is a great film, though not always a good movie. And I think that Bertolucci indulged in some sadism of his own, as well as encouraging and using the astonish art direction and bravura cinematography. From my vague memories of reading Moravia’s novel that is the film’s source decades ago, I think that Bertolucci had considerably less interest in showing the psychology of mass fascism than Moravia, too. (This makes its ongoing relevance to donning “the breastplate of righteousness” and reactionary politics to compensate for secret deviance—as in the recently publicized case of Idaho Senator Larry Craig—less imediately obvious.)

Any temptation to deduct a star from my rating is blocked by appreciation for the superb visual transfer of this incredibly visual a film. I’d have liked the original Italian trailer to have been included, but have to laud the three-part “making of” feature in which Bertolucci and Storaro are very articulate in English. Bertolucci talks a lot about himself and his career. Storaro talks as much about the storyline(s) as about the cinematography, which demonstrates that his brilliant work was in service for a vision of the story, not just showing off.

On the DVD, the film may be viewed in Italian, English, Spanish and Portuguese with the option for subtitles in the last three. I saw the dubbed-into-English version decades ago, and opted for subtitled Italian, fully aware that like all Italian films of the era, the Italian dialogue was dubbed in after shooting—and that Trintignant probably delivered his lines in French. (His lips are indeed out of synch with the Italian, except in saying the “Hail Mary” with his young son, and whoever did his character’s Italian also did the character’s French, rather than Trintignant, a native speaker of French).

I am confused about what was restored to the film. Bertolucci says that he cut it down to two hours at the behest of the distributor in 1970, but the “director’s recut” here still runs only 115 minutes. It is also unclear whether some of the wedding material was cut (if so, it should never have been) or the party of the blind people (which is quite perplexing where it is in the film; it is another dazzling piece of sincematography and direction, but there is no shortage of such pieces in the film and the characters who are squabbling don’t reappear (I’m pretty sure)).


©2007, Stephen O. Murray


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