Conformist, The (1970)
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Gastone Moschin
Plot: A weak-willed Italian man becomes a fascist flunky who goes abroad to arrange the assassination of his old teacher, now a political dissident.
Awards: Won Interfilm Award (Berlin). Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Adapted Screenplay.
Rating: M18 for mature themes.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: MILD)
“When there are so many of us, there's no risk.”
The Conformist is a film about (and of) light and shadow. It is no surprise that its cinematography is stunning, with some images so hauntingly beautiful that they are beyond words. The director of photography is the legendary Vittorio Storaro who won Oscars for Best Cinematography for Apocalypse Now (1979), Reds (1981) and The Last Emperor (1987).
The marriage between writer-director Bernardo Bertolucci and Storaro began with The Conformist, a masterpiece that is possibly the director’s best work to date. It also came out at a time when American cinema had its renaissance. Of course, this is an Italian film, but its influence on filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola can be felt in some way.
Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as Marcello Clerici, a classy Italian hitman sent to Paris to assassinate his professor, now a political dissident. Along the way, he is faced with the trauma of his childhood, and his belief in Fascism is tested. This is the 1930s. Mussolini is on the rise (or fall), depending on which side the characters are on.
Trintignant follows up on his starring turn in Costa-Gavras' Z (1969), also a political thriller, with a measured performance in Bertolucci's electrifying exploration of politics, trauma, sex and morality. I last saw Trintignant in Haneke's award-winning Amour (2012). He has aged considerably after forty years, but he is as fine an actor as any, aged or otherwise.
There is a brilliant set-piece of suspense towards the end as certain characters meet certain fates involving a winding road, cars and guns. It is an example of great direction, focusing not on resolution but moral dilemmas. However, the most critical scene involves a dialogue between Marcello and his professor midway in the film as they ruminate over the myth of Plato's cave.
Do we merely see shadows rather than reality? Or as Bertolucci famously posited, cinema is like Plato's cave, we as viewers only see the shadows of reality, because reality has passed, leaving behind only our imaginations of that reality.
This is where Bertolucci and Storaro shine in their artistic vision for The Conformist. The play between light and shadow, and the use of colour to create a hallucinatory but immensely nostalgic allusion to the past give the film a visual symbolic power matched only by its gripping storytelling.
Politics and beauty don't come any closer (or even sensual) than The Conformist. Spying and scheming take on sexual undertones, in turns intriguing and bewildering. Bertolucci hasn't been remarkably consistent in the 1990s and 2000s, but his early work here is as masterful as they come by.
Verdict: A Bertolucci masterpiece of stunning cinematography and gripping storytelling.
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