IL CONFORMISTA (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)

The quality of Bertolucci’s films is all over the map, but it is universally agreed that, from Alberto Moravia, The Conformist, about Fascism’s ghosts, is exceptionally beautiful.
      For many of us, when we were in graduate school or college, The Conformist was the film to see. When two glamorous young women danced together in a working-class dance hall, incongruity deliciously compounding incongruity, a heady intoxicant of perversity overtook our senses. The Conformist has remained one of the films of our dreams.
      Mild-mannered Marcello Clerici’s mania to appear “normal” and to disappear into the crowd drives him into an ill-suiting marriage and into becoming a Fascist assigned to assassinate a former professor of his, an antifascist activist. The film begins in the 1930s and ends after the war, by which time Clerici appears to embody Italy’s determination to deny its political past.
      The Conformist dazzles with its bits and pieces juggling the present and different degrees of the past. Vittorio Storaro’s color cinematography—at a level of achievement beyond what he contributed to the films that account for his three Oscars—deepens the impression that everything in the film is haunted by memory. Italy’s past is flypaper; but in the disposition of the Clericis’ marriage at the last Bertolucci also summons echoes of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
      Bertolucci is famous for eliciting superlative performances: Adriana Asti, Before the Revolution (1963); Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris (1972); Ugo Tognazzi and Anouk Aimée, Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981); John Lone, The Last Emperor (1987); Keanu Reeves, Little Buddha (1993). On this occasion, with Jean-Louis Trintignant, Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli, however, Bertolucci broke the bank. The Conformist may be the most brilliantly acted movie ever made.

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