now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for
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Bernardo Bertolucci is a master of turning harsh realities into free-flowing dreams and fantasies of sex and power into bracing, often uncomfortable moments of truth. Whether it’s in the male fantasy turned examination of grief “Last Tango in Paris,” the historical epic of Italian fascism and communism “1900” or the story of jaded, self-absorbed kids trying to be radicals in “The Dreamers,” Bertolucci’s films have an oneiric pull even as they’re swinging their protagonists into the grimmest truths of their time. His 1970 masterwork “The Conformist” is perhaps his richest and most beautiful work, a film about a man who suppresses his own desires and morals in order to fit into a new, powerful, horrible movement.
In one of his most controlled, effective performances, Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Marcello Clerici, a man who does what he’s told, when he’s told. He marries a woman he doesn’t love in spite of his own homosexual urges, follows religious practices in spite of his own lack of faith, and when the fascists rise in Italy, he’s the perfect man to follow their examples. Most of the film unfolds in flashback as Marcello rides along with a group of men planning to kill his former professor and friend, who has spoken out against Mussolini and company.
During that ride, we see Marcello’s memories of visits to his morphine-addled mother, his insane father in a sanitarium, a priest before his wedding and other episodes in his life. In each, Trintignant plays him as a man of constant discomfort, someone who’s simultaneously trying to be normal while trying to be noticed for his normality. Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro marginalize him in the frame, making him look small and weak-willed whether he’s alone or in the middle of a dance hall. The latter scene in particular is a knockout, with the most sensual of settings turning into a moment of isolation for a man who seems incapable of feeling true joy or pleasure.
Bertolucci and Storaro’s gorgeous expressionism and use of shadows was a noted influence on Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” but the film’s flashback structure gives it its own unique sense of loss. Along the way, we see a man who acts out of weakness and fear, with the film’s climactic act of violence showing that one needn’t be a murderer himself to be culpable for an act of killing. He sees happiness only in going along for the ride, and when the fascists fall, he’ll rebuke them as if he were always against him. He’s the eternal follower, incapable of breaking from the crowd no matter what atrocities he’ll be complicit to because of it.
More thoughts from the web:
Michael Atkinson, Fandor
In the middle of Bertolucci’s belle epoque, in a torrent of silk and shadow, we find “The Conformist” (1970), still an eye-watering testimony to the erstwhile dash of international cinema and quite possibly, shot for shot, the most ravishing single film ever made. Manifesting novelist Alberto Moravia‘s shadow-box contest between political compliance and personal shame with one of the most arresting mise-en-scene strategies ever concocted for any movie, Bertolucci has created cinema that red-inks your inner calendar. Set entirely in rainy city afternoons and indigo evenings, you can hardly help corresponding the film to seminal mood moments in your own life. This was the age, after all, when swooning art films, not superhero blockbusters, were students’ touchstones, and among the films that marked that generation, “The Conformist” was a singular peacock, a triumphant cataract of passion and rue. Read more.
Greg Cwik, No Hay Banda
Bilge Ebiri, They Live By Night (on the film as his gateway to cinephilia)
Violet Lucca, Slant Magazine
Noel Murray, The A.V. Club
On the surface, Trintignant believes he’s just battling to restore Italian order, but subconsciously, he’s erasing the part of himself that entertains socially undesirable thoughts. Bertolucci smashes together Freudian analysis and Plato’s “Prisoners Of The Cave” analogy into an oblique character study, but any excessively fussy intellectualizing is excused by the film’s expressively cinematic style. Both Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro were just about to turn 30 when they made “The Conformist,” and their young-man cockiness manifests in quirky angles and rich colors, dazzling the viewer with nearly every shot and scene. Read more.
Keith Phipps, The Dissolve
Bertolucci shoots those corridors, and the way they dwarf Marcello as he walks them, the way he shoots the rest of the film: with an exaggeration that skirts Expressionism. The film has a dreamlike quality, much of it courtesy of Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography. Storaro’s work here influenced the look of film for years after “The Conformist,” but if the restored version of “The Conformist” overseen by Storaro and Bertolucci that appears on this new Blu-ray edition reveals anything, it’s the undertones teased out by Storaro’s color scheme. He shoots the past in blue and gold filters, but the shades always feel slightly off. It’s yesteryear remembered with a combination of nostalgia and repulsion, a queasy combination that defines the film and gives it a kind of hideous allure. Read more.