As we enter the season of critics circles doling out awards, attempts at cloyingly ordering and quantifying the sensation and memories of movies experienced (all of which, to my mind, is best imparted through some sort of essay or dialogue—and even then it’s not 100% there, is it?), 2010’s final marks will be averaged, contributing to its ranking within popular memory and a surely imminent “I Love the Gay Aughts” series on VH1. But regardless of how you feel about those endless lists, if you happen to catch the re-release of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, it’ll easily be among the best things you see this year.
Set in late-’30s Italy, the story’s essence is timeless: After a childhood sexual experience (that ends in murder, no less), Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) becomes a radical centrist, striving to embody the status quo by any means necessary. In the name of mediocrity, he marries a petit bourgeois twit, Giulia (described by Marcello as “all bedroom and kitchen”—just as unsympathetic as he is), and voluntarily becomes a fascist agent. His first assignment is to track down his former mentor, Professor Quadri, who defected to France and has been organizing anti-fascist activities. With true dedication, Marcello kills two birds with one stone by taking his honeymoon in Paris to carry out this mission, but becomes emotionally involved with the professor’s young wife. An inversion of Giulia (genteel, poised, intelligent), she alone criticizes his motivations, but is unable to alter his actions, just as Marcello’s espionage fails to alter the course of fascist Italy. The film closes on the eve of Mussolini’s resignation, just as he discovers his understanding of the trauma that motivated his conformity is false.
Detailing the psychology of complicity is relatively rare within works of fiction; even the most reprehensible villains get to be mavericks, ensuring a certain degree of respectability. It’s the type of cavalier despicableness that makes up the majority of history. But however bitter Marcello’s betrayal of the wellbeing of others and his own desires, what’s truly haunting about the denouement’s dual ironies is that inescapable reality of the human condition: Our actions are largely futile and inconsequential, regardless of how pleasurably or painfully we execute them. Further, because it’s told through a series of flashbacks which spiral and loop back onto one another, it unfolds in a manner that manages to be far truer to lived experience than a standard three-act plot.
Unlike most of 2010’s offerings, the story is told to a great extent visually—by which I mean color, framing, clothing, and sets, not frame-fucked-to-death montages. Photographed by Vittorio Storraro (who would work similar magic with Apocalypse Now), it’s a mélange of the sensual haziness of ’70s European art-house fair and the high-contrast, anxious angles of film noir. The film’s opening perfectly layers the conventions and aesthetics of both: Bathed in red neon light, the Roman-nosed Marcello pensively waits in his hotel room, and after getting “the call,” puts on his fedora, dispassionately pulls a sheet over the nude, slumbering Giulia, and leaves. How quickly the eroticism of seeing Stefania Sandrelli’s ass—not unlike Bardot’s in the beginning of Contempt, another adaptation of an Alberto Moravia novel—evaporates by covering her, turning her into a corpse, is synecdoche for the film’s tone. This disjunction, isolation, and misplaced effort are echoed in the marble grandeur of the Esposizione Universale Roma (the building complex designed to celebrate 20 years of fascism), art-deco drawing rooms, and the frozen, creaking-wood forest of Piedmontese where fascist agents, looking like G-men, deliver the Quadris their fate. Deliberate and sumptuous, it’s something that you could analyze for hours or passively devour to equal delight.
Trintignant’s performance is equally complex, managing to bridge both the serious and lighter side of complacency, mixing humor and sternness in equal measure. Describing his mastery of his performance is in some respects worthless; you’ve simply got to see it. With every act duplicitous, doubt is a part of his performance. His duplicity is equally important as the reinfections throughout.