Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Films I Love #47: The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)


The Conformist is Bernardo Bertolucci's melancholy, lovingly crafted portrait of Italy's fascist era, and the pressures forcing individuals to accede to oppressive political regimes. Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a weak man whose only desire is to fit in, to be accepted; he is the conformist of the title. In Mussolini's Italy, he conforms by serving the state, agreeing to turn his honeymoon with the lovely but empty-headed Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) into a cover for an assassination assignment. His mission is to go to Paris and track down his former professor, Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), who had fled from the Italian fascists. Instead, the continually dithering and uncertain Marcello gets tangled up in an affair with Quadri's wife Anna (Dominique Sanda) and finds his conformist resolve shaken by Quadri and Anna's idealism.

This is a visually stunning film, with each scene a study in color and light. Bertolucci's images have a certain pristine formalism that both abstracts the narrative and dramatizes its morality: characters shift between darkness and light, and slatted shadows fall across the characters as though they were being imprisoned by their choices. In one of the most striking scenes, Giulia's black and white striped dress visually rhymes with the light filtering in through the windows of her house as she dances around the room. The images, and the moral imperatives, are derived from the grammar of the film noir, and Marcello in his fedora hat and long coat is a misplaced noir antihero wandering through a vibrant color world. Like a noir hero, his weaknesses — sexual confusion, malleability, willingness to compromise — doom him from the start. The film is a clear-eyed examination of his failure, as well as the failures of all those like him whose collaboration allows fascism and brutality to flourish.

17 comments:

Kevin J. Olson said...

Beautiful stuff, Ed. I love those screen grabs. I could look at those all day! I need to re-watch this soon as it has been probably eight or nine years since I saw it last.

DavidEhrenstein said...

This is the movie that made Bertolucci and international name. Prior to this he was known to dedictedcineastes only. It was as if Sternbarg had come back from the dead to make a film in color that matched subtlety of his black and white work. It's obvious that Wong Kar Wai paid close attention to it.

Fun fact: Aristotle Onassis financed it.

The "Ball of the blind" sequence was part of the film when it premiered at the New York Film Festival but for some reason was excised when it went into general U.S. release. It has since been reinstated. It's one of the best individual sequences Bertolucci ever directed.

Read the Moravia novel. The film is amazingly faithful to it.

Fun fact #2: The phone number given out as that of the professor our anti-hero has been instructed to kill was the actual Paris phone number of

(wait for it!)

Jean-Luc Godard.

John said...

A visually stunning film about weakness and betrayal. My favorite Bertolucci film. Excellent Ed!

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks for this. This film is my all-time favorite.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. This film is simply beautiful, I loved grabbing these images.

David, that's a great fact about Godard! Wonder if he got any prank calls after this.

James Hansen said...

I'm in the "this film is overrated" camp, but god damn if it doesn't have some of the most beautiful and stunning sequences ever. The woods huntdown, the rain on the car window...amazing.

And a plug, since I haven't been around much lately...Out 1's Best of the Decade list is up. Cumulative list scored from 13 different voters. Individual lists are also there. No Bertolucci, but there's some good stuff!

Nice post, Ed. Keep up the excellent work (as you always do)!

James Hansen said...

Oh...and a link.

http://www.out1filmjournal.com/2010/01/out-1-film-journals-best-movies-of.html

Dave said...

Ed - Love this entry in your series. When I finished my annual countdown with a rough overall Top 100, I placed The Conformist at #10, so my passion for this film continues to grow. As you say, grabbing screencaps for this one is a pleasure because the images are so stunning. This movie stuck with me for a long time after I first watched, like it was haunting or calling me to re-watch it. It definitely left an impression and I've only appreciated it even more each time I watch.

Troy Olson said...

I'll just chime in on the lovefest for this film. It may be my favorite film from the 70's and would easily place in my favorite films of all-time.

Those screenshots show the ability of Bertolucci and Storaro's eyes. They capture such a wide range of emotions just through the image - sensual, decadent, lush, frightening, empty, and decaying.

I know my favorite part of writing a review on this was coming up with the screenshots -- I remember having to pare down from 50 to less than 20. Every shot is fantastic and owes to it being one of the greatest cinematographic accomplishments I have ever seen.

Jeremy Richey said...

Beautiful selection of images from a film that I consider among the best ever made.

Ed Howard said...

James, I know there are some who call this film overrated, so you're not alone there. I'm just too entranced by its beauty — and its subtle depth; it's not all glossy surface.

As Dave, Troy and Jeremy all confirm, nearly every image from this film, every frame, is immaculately composed and visually/viscerally exciting.

Thanks for commenting, everyone.

Shubhajit said...

Wonderful yet precise writeup of one of the most acclaimed movies ever made.

It was really unfortunate that my viewing experience of the movie was really forgettable thanks to the subtitles not being in sync with the film (whatever subtitle I managed to get hold of movie at a different rate as compared to the movie), as also because of the poor picture & audio quality of the copy I'd got hold of.

Surely the movie deserves much better than that, and hence hoping to correct the disappointment as soon as possible.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Shubhajit. Sounds like that was definitely a less-than-ideal viewing circumstance, especially for such a visually stunning film. If you have access to Region 1 DVDs at all, it's really great and high-quality.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Now this is how you write, shoot, edit and direct a movie. Clerici's first meeting with Quadri is a cinematic revelation. Lovely write up, as always, Ed.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Film Buff. Agreed about that scene you mention. The use of light and shadow, and the movement of the characters from one to the other, is simply masterful throughout that scene.

DavidEhrenstein said...

One final comment. When the film was first shown at the New York Film Festiavbl not only did it include the Ball of the Blind, but also a shot in the very last scene of a naked hustler crawling into his bed in the ruins of the Collesieum and beckoing to Trintignant. IOW the shot made it quite clear that Trintignant was going to join him. When the film went into genral release this shot was excized and it has never been put back.

Anonymous said...

There is a music as a background to the last screenshot you have placed here. What is it? I could not figure out.