All great films, at some point, ask the question: Who am I? The greatest films go beyond asking this on a narrative level; through their very form, they embody the question of identity. And what makes Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) the very greatest of movies isn’t just its staggering, legendary beauty, but its maze-like journey into its protagonist’s — and, by extension, its creator’s — mind.
The Conformist has just been rereleased in a lovely new 4K restoration, which is certainly cause for celebration given that it’s one of the most visually ravishing pictures of all time. (It’s currently playing New York’s Film Forum, and will soon travel around the country.) There’s no real debate over Bertolucci’s achievement; this is one of those canonical titles whose place in history is a given at this point. You can see its influence in The Godfather series, in Taxi Driver, in movies as varied as Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Dick Tracy, Call Me by Your Name, and Clueless — and yet, it remains as startling and revolutionary as it was upon original release, in part because few filmmakers nowadays are willing to embrace the sensuous and the monstrous at the same time. You never quite know what you’re supposed to feel at any given moment of The Conformist, because it asks you to feel everything.
It’s also one of those period pieces that always seems to speak to an ever-changing present. Based on Alberto Moravia’s 1947 novel, the film follows Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who has joined Mussolini’s Fascists not out of loyalty or ambition, but simply because he wants to fit in. Marcello seeks to keep his emotions and desires at bay. At one point, on the eve of his extremely middle class wedding (to the vivacious, naïve Giulia, played with quasar-like luminosity by Stefania Sandrelli), he confesses to a priest a homosexual encounter he had in his youth with a chauffeur — a dream-like memory that alternates surreally and troublingly between molestation and seduction, and concludes with young Marcello shooting the chauffeur dead. Even now, years later, Marcello doesn’t seem to know how to feel about this event. When he recounts it, we see horror, wistfulness, confusion, and rage dance across his face.
That’s the character’s main problem, in many ways. Over and over, Bertolucci presents this man running from anything that isn’t absolute, binary, or straight (in all senses of the word). He seeks comfort in all things uniform. The various Fascist functionaries he meets along the way — along with the grandiose, colorless architecture within which Bertolucci shoots them — are all affected and cartoonish, each playacting a different kind of movie cliché. Trintignant, one of the most subtly versatile actors of his generation, plays Marcello as if he were an unusually stiff puppet, tightly wound but occasionally breaking into little bursts of movement — enacting a mocking, grand gesture, perhaps, or breaking into a jerky trot. When he does move, he walks or jogs in sharp, straight lines, a man afraid to stray too far in any untoward direction.
Bertolucci’s inspired narrative idea here — which he always credited to his editor, Franco Arcalli — is to tell Moravia’s fairly straightforward but psychologically acute story through a series of leapfrogging flashbacks both distant and recent. Technically speaking, the film basically takes place over the course of one car ride in France, as Marcello and his Fascist bodyguard/driver/handler (Gastone Moschin) head out early one morning to try and catch up to a car carrying Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), Marcello’s old Marxist college professor whom he has arrived in Paris to assassinate, and Quadri’s alluring young wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda), whom Marcello has fallen in love with (and who has, in turn, fallen for Giulia). As they drive, one flashback opens onto a different one, and these then feed on each other to create twisted connections in the protagonist’s mind. (The director had been undergoing psychoanalysis for years when he made The Conformist, and some have pointed out that the film has the loose structure of a therapy session.)
Bertolucci does away with most of the stylistic devices one would typically use to indicate jumps back in time — dissolves, voiceover, audio fades, title cards, etc. — so that we sometimes wind up inside a memory without immediately realizing it. He slips into Marcello’s childhood memories, cutting back and forth between the past and the present, then cuts suddenly into an entirely different flashback, at another point in time. This has a curious, subconscious effect: We experience a nonlinear story linearly, as Marcello projects his desires, fears, and guilt onto the other people in his life. It’s a bold choice, and it both confused and fascinated me when I first saw The Conformist as a young teenager. (I wrote a bit about that experience here.)
The film seems to demand multiple viewings, but it’s so gorgeous, so enchanting a cinematic experience that you desperately want to see it again. You can lose yourself in entire sequences, in their vibrant colors and deep shadows and intoxicating rhythms. (Paul Schrader, whose own pictures carry distinct echoes of The Conformist, once drew a straight line from Bertolucci to the MTV and Miami Vice aesthetic. It was 1993, and he didn’t mean it as praise — but his fundamental analysis wasn’t wrong.)
The Conformist consistently works on both a narrative and a symbolic level. Its legendary dance sequence, in which Giulia and Anna tango together in a Parisian Chinese restaurant before leading the crowd in a line that gathers force and ultimately encircles Clerici, is sexy, funny, moving, liberating, claustrophobic, sinister. It means six different things at six different points, slipping among meanings and moods. And the brutally violent climax (also famous) feels less like an outward attack than an inward one. Marcello kills others in an effort to kill aspects of himself — until a finale in which he projects his crimes onto an old friend who is then almost literally swept away by the forces of history — as stark a representation as you can imagine for the way the Italian bourgeoisie expunged itself of the sins of fascism in the wake of World War II.
Not unlike Citizen Kane, The Conformist served as a compendium of the cinematic techniques that came before it, and also pointed the way forward. Bertolucci was an obsessive cinephile, as conversant with American genre movies as he was with the silents and postwar art films, not to mention Italian forebears and contemporaries such as Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni. In collaboration with his cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who would eventually be claimed by the likes of Warren Beatty and Francis Ford Coppola, two directors who reference The Conformist over and over again in their work), he combined all these elements into a film that moves from dream logic to lush melodrama to noirish portent and back again.
Like many in his generation, Bertolucci adored the French New Wave, and idolized Jean-Luc Godard. The Conformist bears several echoes of Godard’s own stab at the political thriller, Le Petit Soldat (itself a misunderstood masterpiece), including a line attributed to Professor Quadri: “The time for reflection is over. Now begins the time for action.” Bertolucci didn’t have Godard’s penchant for parody or his preternatural self-awareness. Although he was at least as politically committed as Godard (and probably more so, as he was an actual card-carrying member of Italy’s Communist Party, and would within a few years make the unabashedly Marxist epic 1900), he still believed in what we might call “the magic of movies.” Right around the time Godard was veering toward a more pointedly anti-narrative, didactic cinema, Bertolucci embraced suspense, emotion, spectacle — a style of filmmaking Godard himself was dismissing as fascistic at the time. This was a betrayal of sorts. But in so doing, Bertolucci bridged the art cinema of the 1960s with what would become the popular, well-made dramas of the 1970s. It’s why the American so-called movie brats loved him so much.
To achieve all this, he had to “kill” Godard. And so, after giving Quadri one of Godard’s lines, he also gave him Godard’s phone number (really) — suggesting a symbolic assassination. Bertolucci was always rebelling against father figures in his work, though he never fully exorcised any of their influences; there remain plenty of Godardian touches in his work throughout his career. That conflict in many ways powers The Conformist’s uniquely unsettling mood. It’s a picture that simultaneously reaches to the past and the future, and is both highly eclectic and totally original. It’s one of the most pivotal and influential films of all time, and yet it remains like nothing you’ve ever seen before.