The Conformist (1970)
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
As a child, the duplicitous Marcello Clerici (a chiseled Jean-Louis Trintignant) experiences a life-changing sexual incident with a chauffeur named Lino that ends in murder (or so we think), leading him to devote his life (and livelihood) to personifying the status quo. Marcello seeks normality; he later confesses to a priest he has “always lived in sin,” thus reprimanding himself by fitting in. The experience essentially turns Marcello from a radical centrist into a Fascist—as a fedora-wearing adult, he’s a Mussolini supporter whose mantra is country before family.
Taking up with a petit bourgeois wife (a doe-eyed, doll-mouthed Stefania Sandrelli) who has the same disregard for family as he does (dry-humping in the living room, etc.), Marcello turns their would-be honeymoon into a mission to hunt down subversives––namely, his former mentor, Professor Quadri, who has defected to France. Despite his best efforts, Marcello cannot conform. He quells his innate sexual desires; he stands alone in a room full of people dancing; he physically pursues Lina, Quadri’s wife, though she stands for everything he is against.
Bertolucci presents Alberto Moravia’s tale in a complex flashback structure full of Ophulsian lighting and some borrowed camera movements from Welles. Beginning with Marcello amid blazing red light from a nearby sign, he covers up the naked bottom of his wife in a hotel room (perhaps a nod to Bardot in Le Mepris), and ventures down to the south of France in a car driven by his hitman, Manganiello. Marcello’s repressed and displaced homosexual energy is the highlight of the spontaneous ideas appearing as oneiric, intercut flashbacks. Following a Freudian model of free association, Bertolucci forces Marcello’s reality to juxtapose against his buried childhood and fragmented state of mind, and it’s executed in a stunning, disjointed, noir-like fashion across Paris, Ventimiglia, and Rome. Franco Arcalli’s editing is as pertinent and violent as the flashbacks themselves—full of split screens and mixed emotions showcasing each character’s reprehensible behavior. Bertolucci himself admitted that without Arcalli, the film could not have been made.
In this pinnacle of modernist cinema, which paved the way for his 70s contemporaries like Coppola and Spielberg, Bertolucci creates nearly two hours of psychologically bewitching and aesthetically perfect film. Samantha Vacca (June 14, 4:30pm, 7pm, 9:30pm at BAM’s “Around the World in Five Restorations”)