Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), his dense, visually intricate, and stylistically ornate adaptation of the revered novel by Alberto Moravio, tosses sex, desire, politics, and personal responsibility into the Fascist era before World War II. Marcello (an actively repressed Jean-Louis Trintignant), a petty bourgeois man in late 1930s Italy, joins the Italian Fascist party as a way of disappearing into the crowd. He doesn’t believe in the Fascism, he just wants to belong, so he’s volunteered to be an informant for the Secret Police. Stefania Sandrelli is his beautiful, shallow, silly wife and Dominique Sanda the seductive young wife of a Socialist activist he’s been ordered to kill.
Bertolucci’s fluid camera glides and dances through art deco sets which cinematographer Vittorio Storaro bathes in soft, nostalgic colors. He blankets this world in the azure ocean of a sky, a perpetual deep blue twilight that is at once calming and unsettling, and the flashbacks in a sepia-tinged nostalgia tangled up in sexual confusion, guilt, and innocence besmirched. It provides the symbolically loaded psychological “explanation” that ultimately explains nothing beyond the excuses he gives himself.
Trintignant is brilliant as the compromised would-be Fascist, inhabiting the film with a presence that is physically passive even as he tries to play the confident, intellectual leader of men. He is stiff and still and pulls himself inward, instinctively resistant to physical contact. That passivity, his complete lack of conviction, is what fools his old professor (Enzo Tarascio), an anti-Fascist now in exile in Paris, into believing he can sway the former student to his side.
The Conformist was hugely influential on American cinema of the seventies. Coppola picked up the stylized color palettes for The Godfather movies, where the sepia became an idealized past contrasted with the chilly present of Michael’s corruption, and brought Storaro over to shoot Apocalypse Now, while Paul Schrader reached out to production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti to be his “visual consultant” on American Gigolo and Cat People, films with defining, carefully painted color palettes. Bertolucci, Storaro, and Scarfiotti showed them that it was possible to marry such expressionism with the strain of seventies realism in American cinema. Not that anyone would mistake anything in The Conformist as realism. It is heightened, exaggerated, distorted, the world reimagined by the filmmakers as something familiar yet not. It is magnificent, Bertolucci’s masterpiece in a career with no shortage of great films.
And it has been recently restored, the better to soak in the rich textures and hues of the film in all its glory.
Rated R, in Italian with English subtitles
Stream free on Kanopy, which is available through most public and college library systems.
The original American release was cut by about five minutes. It was restored to its full version in 1994 and restored again by the Cineteca di Bologna in 2011, mastered from the original negative in 2K for digital screenings and for disc on Raro Video. It brings out the rich hues while preserving the texture of the film. It looks like a film print from 1970, not a piece of digital photography. Raro’s release on Blu-ray and DVD features the “visual essay” In the Shade of the Conformist with Italian film critic and historian Adriano Apra and featuring clips from a 2011 video interview with Bertolucci, plus two trailers and a 28-page booklet with essays and excerpts from archival reviews, articles, and interviews. The credits on the booklet also helpfully identify the actors who dubbed Trintignant and Sanda.