For one reason or another, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) is one of those late-1960s-early-1970s art-house/college-circuit movies that I never bumped into. I rectified that this weekend for this showing. It was a weekend that I had no reason to expect to be mind-blowning. Well, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself blown away by The Conformist, one of the most beautifully made and beautifully constructed films from one of cinema’s richest eras. There isn’t a false moment or false performance in this operatic examination of a man’s (Jean-Louis Trintignant) quest for the conformity of a “normal” life—one that leads him into the downward spiral of fascism in Mussolini’s Italy. Few films really deserve the term “masterpiece,” but this one does.
Presented in a kind of jigsaw puzzle fashion that pieces the story together in a series of flashbacks before working its way to a final stretch—taking place on the very night of Mussolini’s fall—that ends in a devastating moment of irony (which I won’t reveal here), The Conformist is surprisingly never confusing and always feels just right. The crux of the plot involves Marcello Clerici (Trintignant)—a closet case with a dark secret, not to mention a drug addict mother (Milly) and insane father(Giuseppe Addobbati)—who desperately wants a “normal life” and expiate a youthful sin (or so he thinks). To this end, he comes to define normalcy as being one of the crowd and the prevailing crowd are the fascists.
In order to be a good fascist, he agrees to assassinate—or help assassinate—the once-revered Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), who has fled to Paris with his much younger (and primarily lesbian) wife Anna (Dominique Sanda), where he preaches against fascism. Taking his own new wife, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), on their honeymoon (seemingly unconsummated apart from a desperate encounter on the train) in order to get at Quadri. The situation is complex to say the least. First of all, he likes Quadri, but is even more drawn to Anna. Anna, in turn, falls for the vapid Giulia. Moreover, the Quadris are not unaware of his missing, and Clerici’s every move is watched by a fascist comrade, Manganiello (Gaston Mochin).
The film is very shrewd in that within all its complexities—and in part because of its structure—it never forgets to be a thriller and it constantly reveals little details of the mystery of its main character. The latter part is really what’s at the center, and that is what the last stretch of the movie (after the thriller part of the story has been grimly concluded) focuses on—that and the question of what happens when that to which you’ve conformed is no longer the norm. Rich, complex, compelling and utterly compelling. My first viewing will not be my last.