In Bertolucci ‘s film The Conformists an ineffectual, yet ambitious man takes the easy road to success during the rise of fascism in Italy by ignoring his moral compass in order to betray his former mentor, a political dissident who he assassinates in Paris.
Without delving into a lengthy discourse on the history of European cinema, Bertolucci’s critically acclaimed ‘lack of’ morality tale, The Conformist, is considered an essential picture in the comprehensive fabric of the cinematic revolution that took place during the late sixties and early seventies.
In The Conformist, Bertolucci, much like his contemporaries Godard and Pasolini pokes a judgmental finger at his generations’ complicity with the prevailing political climate of their youth. In the film, the drama is propelled by Marcello Clerici, played by Jean – Louis Trintigant a sexually traumatized man who has spent his life appeasing others in order to get ahead. Bertolucci proposes that the motivating force behind the fascist mentality is an all pervading, frankly brutal and morally loose sexuality that regards the pursued as foils for the duel at hand. No one is sacred, not even the young wife of Clerici’s mentor, whom he seduces and discards when convenient. Her death at the hands of her husbands’ assassins’ is nothing more than an accessory for Clerici’s ensemble of ambition. In the end, after the political climate has changed, Cleric is alone, having reaped the harvest of his disloyalty to those in his past.
The film uses a glamorous style often seen in the American films of the 1930’s. The obvious choice is clear. Whereas Bertolucci’s contemporaries were tearing down the cinematic language, it’s visual grammar purposefully vulgar and brutal, Bertolucci and his director of photography, Vittorio Storaro; leaned heavily on the imagery instilled in them by the cinema that came across from the United States, giving the film a glossy patina, thus creating a beautifully cold surface, which hides the venal ‘supplice’ of the fascist society. Covering all things Freudian with sumptuous art direction and lush cinematography, one could argue that The Conformist is the Italian bastard step child of Douglas Sirk or Vincent Minnelli.
Taking Oscar nods for Best Screenplay, The Conformist was a critical sensation in the United States as well as Europe, it’s compelling story and visual style inspired many filmmakers including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese and Paul Schrader. All, without question, cite Vittorio Storaro as a true collaborator in this film and not one who merely captures the images, but with Bertolucci, is in essence writing the story with light and movement. Much like Gregg Toland had collaborated with Orson Welles on the cinematic advancements in Citizen Kane, the impact The Conformist has had on the modern day cinema here and abroad is indelible.
Needless to say this is an essential must see for anyone serious about cinema history and the art of filmmaking. A staple among revival houses, The Conformist is a reasonably easy film to catch on the big screen. If you do not want to wait, the film is available on DVD via The Criterion Collection who not only restored the film to it’s original 111 minutes, but re-mastered the sound and picture of this timeless cinematic masterpiece.