There are a few rare films that, every time you see them, new layers and new depths reveal themselves. I just re-watched The Conformist, Bernardo Bertolucci’s explosive 1970 portrait of fascism, and now I see that it is clearly one of the greatest films of all time. It’s the third time I’ve seen it, and each time I’ve understood things that had eluded me before. For example, I had taken the title kind of for granted, but I realize now that The Conformist describes something far more complex and insidious than just the superficial desire to be like other people.
The main character, Marcello Clarici, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, seems preoccupied and uncomfortable in his own skin from the very first scene, where he discovers that something has gone wrong in his plans, and most of the rest of the film consists of flashbacks showing us how he got there. The flashbacks are not linear, they jump back and forth in a dazzling display of Bertolucci’s skill, and that of his editor, Franco Arcalli, in teasing out the strands of this man’s life. He is a fascist in Rome in the late 1930s. His ambition is not to just serve Mussolini’s cause but as a member of the secret police, to help find and eliminate opponents of fascism. To that end he is given the assignment of killing his former teacher, who is now living in Paris as a prominent member of an anti-fascist group.
Marcello wants to be a pure conformist, to be as completely “normal” as possible, that is, normal as society views it at the time. To that end he marries an attractive middle class woman named Giulia, played by Stefania Sandrelli, who has no serious interests, but only thinks about clothes and shopping and parties. When he goes with her to Paris, however, he finds himself attracted to his old professor’s young wife Anna, played by Dominique Sanda, who is the very opposite of a conformist. But why does Marcello feel so compelled to conform, at all costs? The key to the mystery lies in his past.
Besides the film’s fascinating and provocative themes, it has a style and visual texture that sets it apart. When you start watching The Conformist, you know right away that this film doesn’t look like other films. The camera glides at oblique angles, following the characters as they stride past and through the brutalist architecture that typifies fascism, the huge impersonal buildings dwarfing the human beings who occupy them. The stunning cinematography by Vittorio Storaro seems to illuminate the film’s interior spaces from within. You can tell how Coppola was influenced by this look in his Godfather films, and a host of other 1970s directors followed suit, including Scorsese.
With epics we are used to being swept away by a sense of spectacle, but instead The Conformist conveys an incredible tension that is at times almost suffocating. Adapted by Bertolucci from a well-regarded novel by Alberto Moravia, the picture has something urgent to say not just about fascism, but about the inner conflicts that drive ordinary people into the snare of inhumanity which ultimately destroys their souls. The Conformist is as devastating and important as ever.