“The Conformist,” which arrives at Film Forum in a lovely new 4K restoration, helped kick off a decade of films wondering whether we had really left fascism in the past. On the surface, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 film suggests how repressed homosexuality leads a man to become a fascist. That surface is visually dazzling but riddled with contradictions and questions. It’s impossible to separate the film’s political content from its style. Based on Alberto Moravia’s novel of the same name, it changed the book’s linear time frame and ends on a far more ambiguous note. The first time I saw it, a projectionist left out one of the reels; the second time, watching the entire intact film didn’t feel so different. The structure, in which Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant) looks back on his life in Mussolini’s Italy as he rides in a car on his way to assassinate a leftist professor, is complex, even incorporating flashbacks within flashbacks. Bertolucci’s direction and Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography are keenly aware of the film as a lush object. Like the giallos made by Mario Bava, Dario Argento and other Italian directors around the same time, “The Conformist” builds a world of great beauty as a staging ground for nightmares.
As the opening credits roll, Marcello dozes in a hotel, waking up when he receives the call to travel to France to murder his professor for anti-fascist activism. The presence of his chubby, mustachioed minder, who acts as his chauffeur, brings back a memory of an attempted molestation when he was 13. His driver (Pierre Clémenti) tried to rape him; trapped in a bedroom, he shot and killed the driver with his own pistol. This incident seems to be the driving motive of his life. He puts on the façade that the title suggests, trying to direct attention away from himself by serving the state. He gets married to Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli). When they arrive in Paris, he and Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) discuss Plato’s allegory of the cave, which the film lays out as a metaphor both for fascist Italy and cinema. The professor’s glamorous, androgynous wife Anna (Dominique Sanda) seduces Giulia, taking her dancing in a working-class nightclub. Giulia seems blissfully unself-conscious about her bisexuality, carried along by the desires of the moment, but Marcello’s resistance to accepting his own sexuality never escapes him.
Many of these plot threads now look like rather dubious tropes, but “The Conformist” transcends them. Back in 1994, critic Jonathan Romney wrote that “it is not that Marcello wants to conform to society, but that he wants society to conform to him…stylistic lushness may defuse the film’s ostensible lesson about sexual and political repression, but they defuse it to make the question more complex.”
Storaro’s cinematography renders Italy and France in alternating shades of white (the murder takes place in winter), brown and jet black, which are treated symbolically. People, especially Marcello, are dwarfed by the architecture around them. Bertolucci brings out the authoritarian implications of being overwhelmed by these modernist structures. Some images are simply inexplicable from a literal perspective: Marcello posing with gun in hand as though he knows he’s a movie character, then pointing it to his own head, or the use of Rome’s Colosseum as an open-air mental hospital. The film’s treatment of female bisexuality suffers from the male gaze , while it depicts Giulia as a dazed fool, but reading this as simply sexist or homophobic is simplistic. Brave, principled and willing to pursue her sexual desires rather than repressing them, Anna comes across the best of any of the major characters. She’s cool, Marcello’s merely cold.
Without giving away spoilers, “The Conformist” ends on a note that questions how reliably Marcello really understands his life. The final scenes show a new, more positive version of the public arena, as crowds march in the streets hailing the demise of fascism. Here, his personality shatters, as the transparently unhappy family life he’s built up is overtaken by his own loneliness and confusion amidst enormous pressure. The idea that there could be one simple explanation for the choices Marcello – and the many men like him, throughout history — proves to be wrong.
This was the last film Bertolucci made before becoming an international star with “Last Tango in Paris” (now infamous for his abusive treatment of bi actor Maria Schneider during the filming of its rape scene), and it matched the formal adventurousness of his ‘60s work with a desire to reach a wide audience. It represents the end of a moment when art films could rival fashion magazines for glamour and ambiguity seemed like a radical political statement. A tremendous pleasure to watch, it ties its own seductions together with those of fascism, becoming a rare cautionary tale with no moralism or self-righteousness.
“The Conformist” | Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci | In Italian with English subtitles | Kino Lorber | Opens Jan. 6th at Film Forum