Every so often, a movie defeats me. In some cases, I’m unable to parse the mysteries of a film because the project is so obtuse that it exists outside anything I recognize as reality. (Here’s looking at you, Performance.) In other cases, however, I’m simply not sophisticated enough to receive the message the picture is sending. And so it goes with Bernardo Bertolucci’s political thriller The Conformist. On a textural level, I can say without hesitation that the film is exquisite. Working with frequent collaborator Vittorio Storaro, one of the true magicians of color cinematography, Bertolucci creates one memorable image after another. Using angles, color, framing, movement, production design, and special relationships with masterful precision, the filmmakers present 1930s and 1940s Europe as a living metaphor representing the spread of fascism.
As the title character moves through his life before and during World War II, he tries to find a niche for himself inside the sleek surfaces of “normal” society, little suspecting that in the process of shaving off his “abnormal” edges, he is sacrificing his soul. Or something like that. You see, the problem is that I felt totally confused within the first five minutes of The Conformist, and never found any true connection with the movie beyond appreciating its beauty on a purely aesthetic level. Apparently, it takes a better man than me to decipher lines of dialogue like the following: “Yes, they would mistake for reality the shadow of reality.” Non capisco, il mio amico.
Therefore, you might ask, why have I rated The Conformist highly, given my inability to penetrate its storyline? Well, in deference to the film’s reputation and to the unmistakable craftsmanship with which it was made, I’m comfortable heaping praise on what the movie might be—in other words, if The Conformist is half as dense and provocative and symbolic as I suspect, then it’s certainly among the most accomplished and challenging films of its era. Call it benefit of the doubt.
Based on outside research more than pulling clues from the actual movie, I gather the storyline follows Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a social striver enlisted by a secretive organization to perform an assassination. On his way to the murder, Marcello flashes back through his life, recalling events that brought him to the current circumstances. He recalls a childhood encounter in which he was molested by an adult whom he then shot. He recalls the opportunistic nature of his marriage to a socially well-positioned woman. He recalls his friendship with a blind political activist. He recalls an affair with a married woman (played by the glamorous Dominique Sanda). And in one moment that I actually did understand while watching The Conformist, Marcello tries to confess his sins to a priest—as a condition of marriage—only to discover that the priest is more upset about Marcello having been with a man than about Marcello having committed murder. That particular scene, so chilly and incisive and sad, emboldens me to suggest that The Conformist contains worlds of meaning I was not able to grasp. Or maybe not. If nothing else, The Conformist is the world’s best cinematographer’s reel, because Storaro renders visual miracles during nearly every shot.
The Conformist: GROOVY