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DVD Review: ‘The Conformist’

★★★★★

Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) is one of the fiercest denunciations of the moral paralysis and intellectual cowardice that marked the fascist era in Italy. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Marcello Clerici, an upper class Italian who has agreed to collaborate in a plot to assassinate a former professor who has fled fascism to live in Paris.

Beginning in Paris with the set up for the assassination, the majority of the film is taken up with a series of flashbacks that explain, without justifying, Marcello’s actions, or inactions. We see him preparing to wed a middle class girl, Giulia, played as the flappiest of flappers by Stefania Sandrelli, and using his influence to join the secret police: all of which is motivated by a need to conform to the ‘normality’ of fascist Italy.

This normality stands in sharp contrast to the chaos of his own family background, his mother is a drug addict and his father is in the asylum, as well as to repress his own homosexuality. Once married, recruited into the secret police and about his mission/honeymoon in Paris, however, Marcello seems to lose his nerve as he is increasingly fascinated by the wife of the man he has come to kill.

Based on Alberto Moravia’s famous novel, Bertolucci’s fascists resemble the pre-war gangster regime of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, rather than the end of war sadists of Pasolini’s Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975). Working with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci creates a lush and inventive visual style seemingly at odds with the bleakness of the film’s political vision in which the fascists are affable but murderous and the anti-fascists, hopelessly naïve.

However, the inventiveness and colour of the photography is in itself a counterpoint to the grim empty classicism of the fascist architecture with its made-for-cinema rectangles and grandiloquence. Likewise, Georges Delerue, who wrote the best soundtracks to the nouvelle vague (Jules et Jim [1962] and Le Mépris [1963]), provides a score rich in melancholy, becoming essentially the heart of the film.

The inventiveness, wit and freshness of The Conformist is more striking than ever. Moments stand out such as a drunken night out in Paris or a chase through the winter woods, which would be copied in many a gangster film or series including The Sopranos, but what is genuinely impressive is its political courage – a true Italian masterpiece.

John Bleasdale