Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Conformist (1970) Film Review
Reviewed by: Ben Sillis
Bernardo Bertolucci's most famous film, Last Tango In Paris, used Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider's affair to underline their bleak lives outside of the bedroom they meet in. But where Last Tango's leads were impartially portrayed through their anonymity, Bertolucci doesn't hold back in The Conformist, made just a few years beforehand, and re-issued by the British Film Institute this week. In 1970 - two years before The Godfather's Oscar validated the approach - Bertolucci took a brave step in making a film where every character is unlikeable and pathetic, even the protagonist. On first appearances a sexual drama between hunter and hunted, it's a haunting, tragi-comical film that uses a love triangle and fear in the same way Albert Camus used plague to explore the fear of European Fascism.
It's late 1930s Italy under Mussolini (the original Fascist, don't you know). Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant, wonderfully opaque) is a man resigned to the system, and like all the best fantasists keen to work his way up by any means necessary, he's not really prepared to. When he is hired by the Secret Service to assassinate his former university teacher, now a prominent anti-fascist academic in exile in France, he's drawn into a game of sexually charged cat and mouse with the professor's wife, whilst dithering over whether he can do the job or not.
Clerici is a frank depiction of the reality behind fascism: below the top tier of murderers and bigots, the cogs in the machinery were (and are) cowards, sticking to the letter of any law laid down. Clerici, possibly Jewish, is trying to ingratiate himself with the regime before the trains bound for central Europe depart. His bumbling attempts to join the secret service are laughable, his wife is a slut and he meekly accepts this while chasing after the professor's wife (beautiful French actress Dominique Sanda), unable to understand that he is only an object of scorn and ridicule for her. He wants the kudos of being a spy-cum-hitman but is too scared to carry a gun. And it goes all the way up the chain. You can see it in the climactic Caesar-like assassination on a deserted mountain road, the gigolo fleeing Clerici's mother's apartment, and the lofty halls and faux-grandeur imperial spaces of Mussoloni's megalithic bureaucracy: it's a serious film, but Il Duce is as much a joke here as in anything by Fellini.
Everyone in The Conformist is trapped in some way - an oppressive political regime stiffens every part of human activity, Bertolucci seems to say. Professor Quadri, with the Italian service forever after him, is a trapped in a gilded cage in his Paris apartment; Clerici's wife's promiscuity is her only outlet (or should that be inlet?) for liberation; Clerici's father is in an insane asylum, and in a potent metaphor briefly flicked over, willingly offers his straight jacket to be tied by a nurse - paid for by the state, of course. And all that Clerici can do is look on - peeping out from behind the curtains at the end of the hall, or behind the car window. Bertolucci's film is far more about the voyeurism of fascism than it is sex, hinted at as Clerici covers his wife's bare behind whilst she sleeps.
David Thomson has described the film as "colour noir", and it's an accurate summation of Vittorio Storaro's cinematography. Clerici sidles along by magnificent facades - there are no shadows to slink into but you can tell from his lowered hat that he wouldn't say no to them - a far cry from the street slums of Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, but the washed out yellows of the film give it a desolate feel reflective of the country's bound and gagged vitality. It's a shame that Bertolucci has only ever fitfully recovered the same quality of politicised film-making in his later career (Stealing Beauty, an insipid romance set in the Italian countryside, was his low-point); even 2003's The Dreamers felt like a French film made by Miramax. With The Conformist, Bertolucci marked himself out as anything but.Reviewed on: 25 Feb 2008
If you like this, try:Last Tango In Paris