Jean-Louis Trintignant as Marcello Clerici in "The Conformist"
Jean-Louis Trintignant as Marcello Clerici in "The Conformist"

A beautiful irony lies in the fact that one of cinema's great creeps skulks through one of the most exquisitely designed and lensed films ever made. After all, what Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) wants most of all is for his life to look right—the appearance of propriety, a respectable marriage, a cozy relationship with the right people. In a word, as he puts it, "normalcy." But Marcello is a grasping, cowardly borderline sociopath in pre-war Fascist Italy, so "normal" is a fraught concept. If writer/director Bernardo Bertolucci's 1970 classic "The Conformist" were any less entrancingly easy on the eyes, it would be hard to watch.

From the very first shot—a long, unbroken take that captures the misleadingly noirish sequence of a man getting a call, getting his gun, and leaving a naked woman asleep in bed—Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro seem out to dazzle anew with each scene. They use the triumphal modernism of Fascist-era architecture to limn the literal corridors of power where Marcello toadies up to join the secret police. They use the angular lushness of period Deco décor to telegraph both the bright hopes and sharp edges of the period. Dutch angles, monochrome scenes, a clash of striped light from window blinds falling across the stripes of a dancing woman’s dress—they are audacious in their visual verve. If the shot where Storaro’s camera chases blowing leaves across the ground looks familiar, that’s because it’s been imitated ceaselessly since. Just re-restored for a new print (and a new DVD/Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber and Raro Video), “The Conformist” is ridiculously gorgeous.
And it’s all for Marcello, an almost comic figure with his huge hat, tight coat, and marionette walk. He’s marrying nubile Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), but he dismisses her to others as “all bed and kitchen.” He enlists his Fascist muscle (Gastone Moschin) to rough up his mother’s chauffeur/lover, and then blanches like a schoolboy when she barks at him. And he agrees to turn his honeymoon trip to Paris into an opportunity to assassinate his mentor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), an anti-Fascist academic, and, while he’s at it, bed Quadri’s young wife (Dominique Sanda). But he hesitates when it’s time to act, because he’s a twisted shit, not a Fascist übermensch. Beneath its sleek surface, “The Conformist” functions as an argument that the two are ever one and the same. 
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