Criticwire Classic of the Week: Bernardo Bertolucci’s ‘The Conformist’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Bernardo Bertolucci's 'The Conformist'
Criticwire Classic of the Week: Bernardo Bertolucci's 'The Conformist'

now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for
attention. This is the 
Criticwire Classic of the

“The Conformist”
Dir: Bernardo Bertolucci
Criticwire Average: A+

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

Bertolucci weaves moments of intimacy throughout, using sex as a means of understanding his characters. Clerici seems far away when he touches his wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), but genuinely committed when he touches Quadri’s young wife Anna (Dominique Sanda); Anna tries to seduce Giulia while Clerici tries to seduce Anna, and everyone, of course, ends up alone. Or dead. The idea of attraction is corrosive in Bertolucci’s world; think of the ill-fated affair in “Last Tango in Paris” (his most notorious film, and the progenitor of Kael’s finest, most hyperbolic film review), which functions more as a self-flagellating experiment for the two lovers than actual intimacy. In “The Conformist,” a subtler, more delicate affair than “Tango,” Bertolucci shows how intimacy and love are superseded by acceptance. Read more.

Bilge Ebiri, They Live By Night (on the film as his gateway to cinephilia)

Dad also happened to have a copy of “The Conformist” lying around (he had lots of tapes lying around, it should be noted), so I decided to watch it. I saw it, thought it was beautiful, but couldn’t quite figure out what was happening in it. But it was such an inviting film — with its lovely, lush surfaces, its mysterious atmospherics, and its unsettling tone (oh, and also its beautiful female actresses). So I rewound it and watched it again, that very evening.  By the time the week was over, I’d watched it another four or five times, and I’d probably seen it ten times before the month was over. I became obsessed with Bertolucci right then and there, and with Italian and French cinema in general soon thereafter. Read more.

Violet Lucca, Slant Magazine

Trintignant’s performance is equally complex, managing to bridge both the serious and lighter side of complacency, mixing humor and sternness in equal measure. Describing his mastery of his performance is in some respects worthless; you’ve simply got to see it. With every act duplicitous, doubt is a part of his performance. His duplicity is equally important as the reinfections throughout. Read more.

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.

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