The Conformist (1976)
“Bertolucci’s Masterpiece about Sex and Politics”
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Gastone Moschin
Synopsis: A weak-willed Italian man becomes a fascist flunky who goes abroad to arrange the assassination of his old teacher, now a political dissident.
More than 40 years after its initial release, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist looks almost as fresh today as it must have in 1970. It’s certainly one of the most influential foreign movies of the last half-century, with such grand masters as Coppola and Spielberg acknowledging its impact on their own filmmaking philosophies. Certainly, the look of Coppola’s epic gangster movie The Godfather is remarkably similar to that of The Conformist, and not merely because their stories take place in roughly the same era.
Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Marcello, the conformist of the title, whose desire to conform can be traced back to an incident in his childhood. At the age of 13, following an attempt by a chauffeur to sexually assault him, Marcello made his escape after mistakenly believing he had shot his attacker dead, thus triggering a profound sense of isolation which is manifested in his attempts to conform with the ideologies his society – a Fascist Italy – considers appropriate. He marries an attractive but essentially empty-headed woman (Stefania Sandrelli) whose girlish, giggly countenance is the opposite of his gloomy demeanour. He is also a member of the ruling Fascist party, for whom he agrees to undertake the assassination of his former philosophy professor (Enzo Tarascio), now an exiled dissident agitator, while on honeymoon in Paris. However, after engineering a meeting with the professor, Marcello finds himself sexually obsessed with the professor’s much younger wife (Dominique Sanda) who, it appears, is equally infatuated with Marcello’s vacuous spouse.
The Conformist is a complex film, not only in terms of its structure – a series of non-linear flashbacks – but in the sense that the more we see of Marcello and the characters with whom he interacts, the more puzzled we become. The sexual and sociological motives of Bertolucci’s characters are intriguingly perplexing: Dominique Sanda’s Anna seems devoted to her much older husband and yet is willing to engage in sexual flirtations with both Marcello and his wife who, after working tirelessly to entice her husband into bed, is not entirely unwelcoming of Anna‘s advances. Ironically, by pursuing the ’normality’ of membership of the Fascist party, Marcello is committed to perform the same act – murder by gunshot – that triggered his psychological condition. All these contradictions and incongruities combine to concoct an enticing conundrum, the solution to which remains frustratingly elusive even after repeated viewings.
Bertolucci creates a remarkably evocative picture of Italy between the wars, while deliberately resisting the temptation to fill the screen with such icons of the era as jack-booted blackshirts – a temptation to which many other directors would have succumbed. Ferdinando Scarfiotti‘s production design creates a sumptuous but understated picture, while Vittorio Storaro‘s sublime cinematography captures the rigid lines of post-war Italian architecture with a haunting beauty. The Conformist also boasts a number of memorable set-pieces: a handheld chase of a potential victim of Fascist hit-men through a forest bathed in exquisite cold sunlight; the tilted angles that illustrate Marcello’s discomfort with the vagaries of his eccentric mother; the overhead shot of the dancers led by Marcello’s inebriated wife as they slowly close in on him.
So what do we learn from the movie? Who knows – it’s the kind of film that’s open to many interpretations and which therefore stimulates endless conversations amongst film buffs on the internet. But Marcello’s outburst in the film’s final scenes, when he realises his entire adult life has been built around a mistaken belief, suggests that his obsessive desire to conform is driven by a subconscious desire to escape the feelings which he feels differ from the norm. What those feelings are, and whether they are, in fact, related to the traumatic experience of his childhood or lay elsewhere, is perhaps the real mystery of The Conformist.
(Reviewed 28th May 2012)