The Conformist (1970), Bernardo Bertolucci's fourth feature and his first genuine international success, remains among the director's most accomplished works to date. It is adapted from the 1951 novel by the Italian writer Alberto Moravia (1907-1990), a major figure in twentieth century Italian literature. Moravia is noted for his psychological realism--inflected with Marx and Freud--and his frank treatment of sexuality and the anxieties of contemporary life. Other Moravia adaptations include Vittorio De Sica's Two Women (1960), Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (1963), Damiano Damiani's The Empty Canvas (1963) and Francesco Maselli's Time of Indifference (1964). Moravia also worked on several screenplays, most famously Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1943) and De Sica's Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), which is based partly on one of his stories.
Moravia's original novel was inspired by the 1937 assassination of two of his cousins in Paris, where they had been working for the Resistance. The narrative closely follows the protagonist Clerici from the incipient sadism of his childhood to his membership in the Secret Service, his complicity in Quadri's death, and finally his spiritual desolation after the fall of Mussolini. Given the impossibility of reproducing Moravia's narrative voice in cinematic terms, Bertolucci instead adopts a complicated flashback structure to suggest the inner workings of Clerici's mind, opening in Paris the morning Quadri is to be assassinated and moving freely back and forth through time. The editing is at its most dense and suggestive in the section surrounding Marcello's fateful encounter with Lino, the chauffeur who attempts to seduce him. Here Bertolucci juxtaposes no less than three layers of time: the day of the assassination, Marcello's confession just before his marriage, and the childhood episode with Lino.
In addition to its scrupulous character study of Clerici, Moravia's novel is also noteworthy for its elaborate symbolic structure: Pasqualino "Lino" Seminara, the chauffeur who attempts to seduce the young Marcello, is a defrocked cleric, thus making a deliberate connection with Clerici, the protagonist's last name. Similarly, Professor Quadri's wife is named Lina, thus serving as the female counterpart to Lino. Bertolucci does not retain all these elements--Lina is renamed Anna in the film, for instance, and no mention is made of Seminara's former life as a priest. Instead, the director introduces a rich system of visual metaphors derived from Plato's allegory of the cave to comment on the illusions of politics and sexual desire. Memorable images in this regard include the giant statues carried back and forth in the Minister's vast marble office, the feet passing in front of the street-level window in the restored "dance of the blind" sequence, the painting behind which Marcello disappears near the harbor, and the flickering firelight illuminating Marcello at the end of the film. The Conformist deservedly received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Ultimately, what one remembers most is the film's striking visual style, from its elegant lateral tracking shots to its meticulous recreation of Fascist Italy, albeit with deliberate surrealist touches; it is arguably Bertolucci's most beautifully photographed and designed film after The Last Emperor (1987). The Conformist marked Bertolucci's second collaboration with renowned cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and his first with set designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti. The three continued to work together on Last Tango in Paris (1972), The Last Emperor, for which Scarfiotti won an Academy Award, and The Sheltering Sky (1990). (The latter was co-designed by Gianni Silvestri, another regular Bertolucci collaborator.) Up until his premature death at the age of 53 in 1994, Scarfiotti earned a reputation as one of the most talented production designers of his day. Other significant films on which he worked include Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice (1971), Paul Schrader's Cat People (1982) and Barry Levinson's Toys (1992), which received another Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction.
The Conformist was largely well received upon its American release. Vincent Canby of the New York Times admired the complexity with which the film approached the issues of sex and politics, calling it a "decided improvement" over Moravia's novel. He also praised its performances and its visual style, stating that "...not the least of the film's extraordinary beauties is the way it recalls an era." Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic, on the other hand, was singularly unimpressed, complaining about its fragmented editing and lavish style: "In the filming itself, [Bertolucci] makes very sure we understand that the Age of Cinema has arrived and that he is a leading citizen. No millimeter of the screen is left unpregnant at any moment, no shot is spared heavy meaning." The most thought-provoking critique of the film, however, was by Pauline Kael in the March 27, 1971 issue of The New Yorker. While she declined to call it a "great movie," she nonetheless declared it a "sumptuous, emotionally charged experience." Bertolucci, she wrote, "moves into the past, as he works in the present, with a lyrical freedom almost unknown in the history of movies." She reserved special praise for Jean-Louis Trintignant's performance, writing that he "has an almost incredible intuitive understanding of screen presence." Finally Kael's extended review--really more of a meditation--becomes a lament for the dampening effects of Puritanism, regardless of political affiliation, on the art of film, which she considered "the great sensual medium" and Bertolucci one of its poets. It is a perfect example of why film criticism is so much poorer today without her.
Producer: Maurizio Lodi-Fe
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Screenplay: Bernardo Bertolucci, based on the novel by Alberto Moravia Photography: Vittorio Storaro
Music: Georges Delerue
Editing: Franco Arcalli
Production Design: Ferdinando Scarfiotti
Costume Design: Gitt Magrini
Principal Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant (Marcello Clerici); Stefania Sandrelli (Giulia); Dominique Sanda (Anna); Enzo Tarascio (Professor Quadri); Gastone Moschin (Manganiello); Jose Quaglio (Italo); Pierre Clementi (Lino); Milly (Marcello's mother); Giusseppe Addobbati (Marcello's father); Yvonne Sanson (Giulia's mother); Pasquale Fortunato (Marcello as a child).
by James Steffen