Haunted by memories of a childhood sexual encounter with an adult and the subsequent murder of the same man by his own hand soon after, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) moves uneasily through life with a profound sense of being inherently different to those around him, and with a pathological need to make up for that by conforming as closely as possible to the social and political orthodoxies of his day. Unfortunately, he happens to be living in Italy of the late ‘30s during the rise of Mussolini, and so conformity means not only marrying into what society deems an impeccably bourgeois family, but joining the Italian fascist secret service to boot. After being recommended for duty by his blind friend Italo (José Quaglio) Marcello is assigned a trip to Paris in order to spy on and report back to his superiors the activities of an exiled Italian communist agitator who was formerly also a teacher of his, Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), while accompanied by his apparently avuncular handler Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) and using his honeymoon vacation with his unsuspecting, gigglesome new wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) as his cover for being in the country. En route though, Marcello receives troubling counter-orders: no longer is his mission merely to monitor Quardri: now he must report the activities of the group to which he is linked and then eliminate the professor altogether -- and he’s provided with a gun for doing just that! Matters are complicated further when, after making contact with Quadri in Paris on the pretext of being an old student catching up with a former mentor, Marcello falls head-over-heels in love with the professor’s mysterious young bisexual wife Anna (Dominique Sanda). However, she quickly senses his true identity but is still attracted to Marcello’s pretty, status-lending young wife, while at the same time being prepared to offer herself to Marcello if it will persuade him to leave her and her husband in peace. But after increasing pressure begins to mount from his fascist colleagues, and finally unable to put off the moment of truth any longer, Marcello finds himself accompanying Manganiello on a trip through a remote forest-shrouded region of Savoy where Quadri and Anna are to be found holidaying, and where he will be expected to carry out his mission … leaving no witnesses.
Few films of the 1970s or any decade since, have ever quite managed to equal Bernardo Bertolucci's “The Conformist” for the striking consistency with which a display of on-screen excellence and artistry can be seen highlighted throughout every aspect of a film’s production. Based on Alberto Moravia's acclaimed novel, this is a piece of virtuoso filmmaking that isn’t afraid to draw attention to its innovativeness in both technological terms (faster film speeds and lighter cameras enabled far-reaching experimentation with movement and lighting) and in the radical way editing is used to highlight the interior life of the central character. The film also saw the twenty-nine-year-old Bertolucci exchanging the nouvelle vague inspired trappings of his early experimental films for an immensely rich and varied palette which unashamedly revelled in the lush and often strikingly surreal lighting schemes of Vittorio Storaro’s amazing cinematography; the deliberately attention-seeking ornate visual language behind the revolutionary production design aesthetic of Ferdinando Scarfiotti; and a particularly psychologically complex form of narrative storytelling as evinced in Bertolucci’s layered screenplay, which brought a baroque strangeness and ambiguity to the conceptual underpinnings of Moravia’s original story, all of which were filtered through a sensibility which expresses itself on the screen in the kind of overt technique that feels more in debt to the cinematic showmanship of Orson Welles than the principles of the cinema of Godard – the filmmaker who had originally nurtured Bertolucci’s conception of his art form and previously determined his approach to it.
Indeed, the time and setting of the tale, which takes place in the Rome and Paris of the late-‘30s and early-‘40s, provides all the excuse needed for the director and his filmmaking collaborators to concoct a highly stylised, romantic reconstruction of an era of fascist rule in Italy which is more in thrall to the Wellesian cinema of its corresponding age than it is to any notion of realistic representation of the actual period itself. This is an abstract rendering of a difficult time in Italy’s fractious history, as seen through the veil of memories and recollections of the film’s central character. Bertolucci’s re-characterising of the novel’s original chronological narrative structure as a fractured and disordered free-associative pattern of recall in the mind of the troubled Marcello, enables him to imbue the film with all manner of disorientating textures, using a riot of film and camera techniques – dutch angles, hand-held cameras, fluid crane shots -- and odd lighting schemes which transfigure the original locations (little of the film was shot on a studio set, instead the interiors of actual sites were radically altered for the film ) in tandem with Scarfiotti’s transformative production design values, which serve to remind us that the protagonist’s actions in the present have been informed by an internal conception of self and by his own sense of a difference originally forged during an earlier period of a life which has subsequently come to seem increasingly unreal and more disassociated from reality with every layer of memory and experience accrued to it.
The film was incredibly influential right from its release, and had a huge effect on American cinema of the 1970s (Paul Schrader cited the film as ‘the dictionary’ from which the ‘New Hollywood’ directors all came to read), most notably, first of all, on the style of “The Godfather Part II”, which noticeably attempted to recreate certain images from the film. Francis Ford Coppola subsequently used Storaro on “Apocalypse Now” largely because of having seen and appreciated his cinematography on “The Conformist”. Vittorio Storaro’s work is perhaps the element that stands out the most upon first viewing the film -- particularly during the lengthy Paris-set second half, when the cool deep blue filters which bathe the exteriors contrast with the rust-orange lighting used to signify interior spaces and make a bizarre painterly style of ‘colour noir’ in which every frame feels like a piece of post-impressionist artwork -- the vivid, rich, almost cartoony clash of blue and orange colours sometimes evoking the work of artists such as Paul Gauguin. The film’s remarkable, stylised 1930s noir look represents the most perfect alignment of production design, costume design (hugely stylised creations by Gitt Magrini), editing style and varied acting approaches imaginable. Through the act of unfolding the narrative as a non-linear series of recollections, using the framing device of having Marcello reflecting upon his life thus far while on a car journey to Savoy with Manganiello, where they are to kill Quadri (the nature of their journey only becoming apparent as the flashbacks progress), Bertolucci is able to get right inside the character’s psyche in a way which few other films have been able to achieve with their characters since, rendering the inside of Marcello’s head as transparent to us as it is to him, while at the same time leaving us as viewers equally subject to the same confusions, self-deceptions and misunderstandings that have assailed the reluctant spy throughout his attempts to blend in, to be the ultimate conformist.
The film’s central metaphor likens the allegory of Plato’s Cave (the Greek philosopher’s characterisation of our perceptual relationship to reality) to the dream palace that is the cinema theatre, and both of them to the subconscious mind -- and the film is heavily couched in images which have Marcello and other characters furtively viewing scenes through light-reflecting windows as they play out as though on a cinema screen, even as Marcello’s own memories, of which these scenes are themselves a part, spool out before the eyes of the film’s viewing audience. Through this conflation of involuntary acts of memory and of the art of cinematic invention Bertolucci brings forth a series of rich, sensuous visual scenarios which equally make use of elements of surrealism and of neo-realism and of film noir in one fluid aesthetic that never feels muddled despite the unusual juxtaposition of cinematic styles it provokes.
Even the acting is able to sustain a number of competing styles, ranging from Jean-Louis Trintignant’s edgy, introverted and sometimes comically prissy take on the noir gangster image, to Stefania Sandrelli’s deliberately mannered, over-the-top shrillness in her portrayal of the naive and frivolous wife who unwittingly accompanies Marcello on his assassination mission to Paris. The porcelain beauty of Dominique Sanda as Anna is fetishized and idealised by having her briefly and unostentatiously appear as several other minor characters, already encountered by Marcello early in the film – a fascist General’s mistress and a facially scarred prostitute -- so that when she finally appears in the guise of the professor’s young wife, she makes an immediate subconscious impression on both the viewer and Marcello, who feels an instantaneous connection with a woman he has set himself to betray before he’s even met her for real.
Despite being a big studio production (financed by Paramount), and even bearing in mind its incalculable influence on mainstream cinema in the years since its release, “The Conformist” is as intellectually unsparing as any arthouse experimental piece. It’s interesting to note that, if watched for the first time today, the film’s use of an intricate mosaic of flashbacks as its main narrative device is probably a great deal easier for modern audiences to cope with than it was for audiences of the early seventies: post “Reservoir Dogs” the flashback has been used in increasingly sophisticated ways across a great many modern films and TV series, yet even so, few other works have made quite as ingenious, sustained and ground-breaking use of this style of storytelling as “The Conformist”, which provides, like so many other aspects of the movie, a textbook course in the adaptability of film, in this case through editing technique. Although Bertolucci’s use of surrealism and his reliance on extreme visual style to evoke meaning both combine with his decision to remove from the script many of the more overt psychological motivations in the novel for the Marcello character to render the film inherently ambiguous and open to interpretation, it seems likely that the suggested connection made between Marcello’s sexual ambivalence about his past and his aptitude to submit to right wing totalitarianism are in some way a comment on post-war bourgeois Italian society and its historical relationship with Mussolini’s regime, with Marcello perhaps personifying the hypocrisies and evasions of the country as a whole as it stood in the tumultuous post ’68 period. Yet it’s a film of such wild creative exuberance that it totally transcends any complete identification with a single period in time; indeed, the period setting and extreme stylisation of imagery makes it hard to identify what year it was actually made in if you don’t already know. The film thus still feels totally modern and as vital as the day it was made. “The Conformist” actually does stand out from its cinematic peers -- it’s one of the great film masterpieces of the modern age, and Bertolucci has never since bettered its beguiling, intoxicating brilliance.
“The Conformist” finally arrives on Blu-ray (in a double-play release that includes a free DVD version) from Arrow Academy after some delays caused by problems with the restoration process pushed back the release date several times. Some might feel a tinge of disappointment with the resulting HD transfer: it’s by no means a perfect showcase for the Blu-ray medium while at the same time it is undoubtedly a vast improvement (as it should be!) on previous, not very impressive DVD incarnations. Basically we get a very vivid-looking transfer in terms of representation of the film’s rich colour palette; and although it’s not super sharp, there a fair amount of extra detail evident in a great many scenes and the transfer retains its film-like grain as well as a few imperfections too; all in all though this seems like a fair effort, and certainly worth the upgrade. Vittorio Storaro has supervised this new HD transfer, but before you run for cover, rest assured that the film appears in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and not some mad rejigged effort of the cinematographer’s own devising – the bizarre fate which recently befell Storaro’s supervision of the HD transfer for Dario Argento’s “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”.
The mono 2.0 stereo found here is perfectly fine and the disc comes with a superb commentary from film scholar David Forgacs, who really does a fine job of explaining all aspects of the production background of the film and quotes extensively from interviews Bertolucci has given over the years about what he was attempting to achieve. He also supplies lots of fascinating little titbits of information along the way, such as that the phone number and Parisian address of Professor Quadri that’s given in the film were both Jean-Luc Godard’s, a fact that explicitly aligns Bertolucci’s break with his cinematic forefather with Clerici’s own betrayal of his former professorial mentor -- one of several father figures the spy betrays during the course of the movie. There’s also a fine and informative hour-long documentary, “Bernardo Bertolucci: Reflections on Cinema” (included on the Blu-ray only) originally made for Italian television, that includes clips of interviews from throughout Bertolucci’s career on the making of each one of his movies. Finally, the duel-disc release also comes with a booklet with writing on the film from Michael Atkinson, a re-printed interview with Bernardo Bertolucci from 1971 and Bertolucci’s thoughts on filmmaking, illustrated with original stills. All this adds up to what is an essential purchase for all cinephiles who have access to players capable of handling region B discs. Highly recommended.
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