Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger loves to mix sex and politics. It's a win-win.
Bertolucci's Masterpiece about Sex and Politics
Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist is a great film. Like great novels or great works of music, The Conformist's greatness brings with it certain plusses and minuses. It is dense; impenetrably so. In fact, the experience of watching it becomes physically dizzying because there is so much to absorb and synthesize. It presents no easy answers. It is simultaneously stimulating and frustrating. And though the act of watching it demands much from you, The Conformist's artistry is undeniable.
Facts of the Case
Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Three Colors: Red) is uneasy. His internal crises and tumultuous upbringing cause Marcello paranoia: he thinks his inadequacies and deviance are magnified for the world to see. He desperately wants to appear as normal as possible, even though normalcy is not his lot. Marcello also has a weak will. This nasty combination of spinelessness, paranoia, and desire to appear normal drive him to Fascism and marriage to a "petty" woman named Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli, One Last Kiss), whom he does not love.
When his blind friend gets him invited into the Fascist party, Marcello is asked to spy on—and eventually kill—his former teacher, Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio). Because the mission will take him to Paris, Marcello decides to make a honeymoon out of it. He drags Giulia to the Quadri residence. While he and the Professor debate the political ramifications of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," Quadri's arresting wife Anna (Dominique Sanda, The Crimson Rivers) entertains Giulia. To the frustration of his war-hardened handler Manganiello (Gastone Moschin, The Godfather: Part II), Marcello drags his feet in planning the assassination. He has become obsessed with Anna.
This will not end well.
The Conformist is based, reportedly faithfully, on a dense novel by Alberto Moravia. The film's literary underpinnings are obvious in its convoluted density and richness of symbolism.
Bernardo Bertolucci got a "reputation" with Last Tango in Paris, a reputation he reinforced with his 2003 hotcake The Dreamers. But before Bertolucci got his degree in erotic philosophy, he made a definitive statement with The Conformist.
As I watched The Conformist, I grew increasingly frustrated. Its warped flashback structure made linear assumptions impossible, so it became a lyrical journey through intense, psychosexual, politically-laden symbolism. Marcello does absurd, giddy dance numbers in the austere hallways of The Fascist Regime. His mother is a dope-swilling ghoul while his father is a stark, lonely figure in a mental asylum. Leaves blow ominously. Music means something…but what, exactly? Marcello is a weak-willed killer, and possibly bisexual. Breasts are bared, but are ignored—until pain and human misery enter the picture.
I cannot help but refer to cinema to describe The Conformist. Take the structure of Reservoir Dogs, the austere cinematography of The Shining, and the gravity and shadows of Blade Runner. Toss in a dash of A Clockwork Orange and the political dysfunction of 1984. Mix in random snippets of eroticism and violence. But this hodgepodge of allusion is unfair to The Conformist, which stands alone.
As the trainwreck moves forward (towards spoilers in this paragraph, by the way), The Conformist becomes ever darker. Manganiello is almost comical, like a figure in a spy spoof. But he eventually snaps, condemning Marcello as a coward. Manganiello takes action, leaving the inert, cowardly Marcello to watch impotently in the back seat while Anna claws, desperate and screaming, at his window. Marcello's blend of cowardice and conniving is a darker roast of Jerry Lundegaard from Fargo. This is but one small observation buried in a sea of larger themes. The Conformist is infinite, but somehow tightly constrained at the same time. It will keep your mind reeling long afterward.
Bernardo Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro (cinematographer of Apocalypse Now and Dune) have crafted an indescribably rich cinematographic world in The Conformist. Desaturated, noirish slants of light and shadow blend seamlessly with gaudy, chilling neon. A worm's eye blast of blowing leaves takes on malignant power, becoming as ominous as the white whale. The statues and columns of the Fascist headquarters are both expansive and secretive; a labyrinth of monoliths. And the women are captured with a poignant, loving eye that stirs conflicting emotions simultaneously. Storaro is particularly flattering to Dominique Sanda; you want to just stare and stare at her forever.
One telling scene (which may be the key scene in the restored footage) shows Marcello standing on the outskirts of a dance floor next to his blind, Fascist friend. Recall that Marcello longs to appear normal. Everyone on the dance floor is having a ball, falling in line behind Giulia. She leads them around the floor and out the door to go around the building. Marcello is starkly isolated in front of an array of windows, mere inches from the parade of laughing people—but completely separate from them. The crowd comes back in and swirls around the dance floor. Marcello is penned in, distant from them yet unable to get out of the way. The camera pulls overhead, and Marcello is literally rigid in the eye of a hurricane of dancers. The image is potent on visual, kinetic, and thematic levels.
Paramount's remastered transfer is equally potent. Aside from a veneer of softness, the transfer invites you into The Conformist with no reservation. Detail, color fidelity, contrast, and smoothness combine to highlight the perfect cinematography. Georges Delerue's rich score accentuates the complex, competing themes of the film with clarity. There is the merest hint of distortion in the opening reel, but nothing that breaks the subconscious.
Speaking of the subconscious, how would an actor go about revealing a character's subliminal drives? Ask Jean-Louis Trintignant. On the surface, Marcello is as bland and awkwardly poised as he can force himself to be. But through flashbacks and subtle acting, we're privy to a seething world of unspeakable horror and sexual tension. Marcello's measured tone and calm demeanor belie the horror of his absurd, repulsive utterances. The Conformist rests heavily on his shoulders, and he carries the load.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The three featurettes are really one long interview broken up into areas of focus. We hear primarily from Bertolucci and Storaro, which is the important thing. The interviews are rich and informative, but eventually grow monotonous. A dash of something else for contrast would have gone a long way.
The Conformist is neither easy nor pleasant. It is a gruesome, condemning take on how one man in a political system can wreak incalculable havoc. If you don't like sorting through dense political allegory, prepare yourself.
The more you "get" The Conformist, the more it will exhaust you. Fortunately, its great performances, stunning women, rich 1930s mise-en-scène, and flawless cinematography will buoy your flagging spirit. This won't suit everyone's taste for great cinema, but it is an incontrovertible classic of film making.
The conformist has not conformed at all. The defendant is innocent on the charge of impersonating a bland film.
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Scales of Justice
• "The Rise of The Conformist: The Story, The Cast" Featurette
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