Still from 1970's "The Conformist."

A single act defines him in The Conformist, and that’s the part he plays in the assassination of Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), an anti-Fascist intellectual who lectured Marcello in college. Essentially, all the latter must do is point Fascist leaders in Quadri’s direction. But it also encapsulates what makes him so despicable. He’s a spineless finger-wagger who’d sacrifice another’s life just to get a pat on the back.

 

His chauffeured drive over to this intricately plotted assassination works as the film’s foundation. Told in flashback, The Conformist uses the plot point as a way to tell Marcello’s life story. As a way to show that you can’t make a conformist. A conformist is usually born a conformist.

 

Reflecting upon what brought him to this traitorous moment in his life, Marcello recounts his relationship with his morphine-addicted mother (Milly), his childhood molestation at the hands of a chauffeur (Pierre Clémenti), his relationship with the vapid Giulia (an effectively featherweight Stefania Sandrelli), and his early run-ins with the law.

 

All told in a dreamy visual style — a groggy parade of blues, greens, oranges, and golds that have the same withering texture of the Kansas scenes in Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) — the flashbacks help define The Conformist as a half fake, half hyperreal account of a follower’s decline into nothingness. 

 

We wonder: is the ocular artifice a way to represent Marcello’s refusal to look into the past as anything other than a dreamworld where nothing really matters? Or is it a way to reflect just what a discolored sham of a man he is?

 

Bertolucci keeps us guessing, and that sustains the movie’s credibility as a would-be biopic that could be about any one of the men who blindly bought into the Fascist party’s output. Or any man who’s lived a life completely driven by another. When the crusher of an ending eventually comes to light, The Conformist’s take-home message becomes ever-abundant: in the long-run, forfeiting your individuality for complicity might as well be worse than death. And that makes for a vibrating, double-edged tragedy. 

 

That Bertolucci, just two years away from making Last Tango in Paris (1972), was barely 30 at the time of The Conformist’s release is only a testament to why his talents have remained so unmatched. Because his filmmaking style combines thematic and emotional heft with a visually rich sensibility, the feature turns into a fortifying, almost drunken experience. Take only its story into account and it is, nonetheless, timeless. But dress it in cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s visual flamboyances and it becomes timeless and unforgettable. The hypnotic moviegoing experience that picked your brain, released a toxin into your blood stream, and didn’t try to apologize. A-

DIRECTED BY

Bernardo Bertolucci

 

STARRING

Jean-Louis Trintignant

Stefania Sandrelli

Dominique Sanda

Gastone Moschin

Enzo Tarascio

Pierre Clémenti

Milly

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

1970

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 53 Mins.

The Conformist November 16, 2017        

arcello (a perfectly blank Jean-Louis Trintignant) might as well be a shapeless blob. The title character of Bernardo Bertolucci’s unnerving The Conformist (1970), he is hardly a man — just a jiggly amalgam of the perceptions and ideas of others, born to follow and do or say whatever makes him feel like more than what he is. That’s a dangerous thing: because the film in which he stars is set in 1930s, Fascist-era Italy, this makes him a natural fit for boosting the sadistic ideologies of dictator Benito Mussolini.

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