[The Conformist opens today for a one-week run at Film Forum.]
Generally understood to be an unshakably influential film and a keystone of the canon, The Conformist represents Bernardo Bertolucci’s first fully successful coordinated attack on the retinas. Vittorio Storaro had been a camera operator on Before The Revolution, but in 1970 he first worked for Bertolucci as DP, here and on the preceding The Spider’s Stratagem. The film presents one stunning image after another; it takes about 45 minutes to even start noticing much else on first viewing.
That The Conformist isn’t Bertolucci’s most sexually perverse film of the ’70s merely means that Last Tango In Paris and Luna exist. (And like the same year’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, the film contemplates the effects of fascism on Italian life at least partially via Dominique Sanda’s breasts.) In boldly operatic and unapologetically allegorical terms, The Conformist presents the story of Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a sexually indecisive and morally persuadable man who tries to get himself to focus by being a good fascist. Marrying a “mediocre bourgeois” (Stefania Sandrelli) is as important as volunteering to inform for the secret police.
Marcello needs some kind of disciplined framework for his life because, apparently, he’s still unhappy about this one homosexual experience he had as a boy. “Its sexual politics,” Stuart Jeffries noted in 2008, “don’t bear much scrutiny.” The film, perhaps, is more ambivalent than it’s given credit for: packed off to a mandatory pre-wedding confession, Marcello notes the priest seems more concerned about his one gay experience than the fact that he potentially killed the offender. Nor is The Conformist particularly alone (or even outdated) in linking fascism with sexual frustration.
Still, that specific link can make for generally skeptical viewing. The Conformist is decidedly a breakthrough for Bertolucci, sloughing off his heavy Godard influence once and for all. It’s here that he achieves “pure style,” in the process showing what a double-edged sword that can be. Not that fascism doesn’t deserve style or isn’t stylish, as both Leni Riefenstahl and David Bowie could attest. But when it comes to actually making moral or political evaluations, The Conformist is kind of a wash, discussion of Plato’s Cave and all. Its ending sequence—the fall of Mussolini’s Italy, seen on firelit, bombed-out streets—bears a surprising resemblance to the same year’s Catch-22, a surreal plunge into the night. Both films are often visually swooning experiences, and both have trouble not overly hammering one point home.
In the interests of apologizing for being slightly underwhelmed by a near-universally-beloved landmark of world cinema, let me offer up the possibility that Bertolucci’s 1979 Luna—the bizarro capper to a decade of being at the center of world cinema—is a better case study in misdirected sexual energy. There’s a hint of something wrong with the mother-son relationship in The Conformist (Marcello tells his mother to cover up, she basically leers in response), a seed perversely magnified in Luna’s mother-son incest saga. Where The Conformist’s allegorical terms are blunt (their iconoclastic impact somewhat damaged by years of influential bleeding down), Luna’s are just opaque and impenetrable making for much more pleasurably surprising filmmaking. The Conformist still stuns, but only the eye.