On Monday at 9:30 PM, Doc Films will present a 35-millimeter print of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970). One of the greatest-looking movies ever made, it’s easily the most important revival screening in town this week. It remains a career best for cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who also shot Apocalypse Now and Warren Beatty’s Reds. The Conformist features rich, deep colors and lots of gorgeous and precise camera movement; you could watch it with the sound off and it would be no less impressive. The look of the film perfectly complements its theme, which is the seductive power of fascism. The Conformist sucks you in with beautiful style, then makes you recoil at having been seduced—one’s relationship to the film is meant to mirror Italy’s relationship to the Mussolini era.
The Conformist comes from a cycle of films by major Italian directors that confronted their nation’s fascist past: Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969), Pier Palo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties (1975), and Ettore Scola’s A Special Day (1977). I may find Salò more shocking and A Special Day more moving, but neither is as hypnotic as The Conformist. At its best, The Conformist achieves what some would call “pure cinema,” a fusion of visual design, music, editing, and camerawork that’s comparable to sculpture, painting, or ballet. Bertolucci and company declare their aesthetic intentions from the very first shot: it begins as a medium close-up of the protagonist (Jean-Louis Trintignant) lying on a bed, bathed in crimson neon light; then the camera moves slowly backwards to survey the scene as the man gets up to leave, revealing a woman lying naked on her stomach next to where he was. There are intimations of sex and intrigue, as well as the mystery of the past—already the decor and costume design are impeccable, channeling 1930s Europe in vivid detail.
We soon learn that this man is embarking on a mission for Italy’s secret police. In flashbacks Bertolucci shows how the main character, a 34-year-old named Clerici, seeks out work with an intelligence office in Rome. As he explains to a friend, Clerici wants nothing more than to be a “normal man,” and in the fascist era, this means demonstrating his loyalty to the party. He has a plan that he hopes will win him favor with officials: Clerici will seek out an old professor whom he knows to be an antifascist subversive, win his trust, then find out names of other subversives he can deliver to the police.
Clerici is also engaged to a woman he disdainfully describes as petty bourgeois and lacking intelligence. He doesn’t seem to love her, but rather regard her as something he needs to acquire in order to assume a normal life. Stefania Sandrelli plays the fiancee, Giulia, and she gives a heartbreaking performance; one believes Giulia’s naïveté, her cluelessness about being used. Clerici marries Giulia and takes her to Paris on a honeymoon. It’s there that he will find the professor, Quadri, and get into his good graces. Before arriving, however, he needs to make a liaison with a secret police officer to learn more information for his mission. Giulia doesn’t even question what he’s up to.
In spite of her passiveness, there’s a vitality to Giulia that meshes beautifully with Bertolucci’s mise-en-scene—the character gives life to the surroundings, adding to the seductiveness of the film’s period re-creation. Bertolucci and Storaro also make brilliant use of fascist-era architecture, reveling in its towering grandeur and deco-inspired sleekness. Throughout the movie, the duo employ precise and linear camera movements to depict complex actions. The camerawork conveys a beautiful sense of order—a visual metaphor for the orderliness that fascist leaders promised to deliver. Georges Delerue’s score adds to the hypnotic effect, complementing the musicality of the visuals.
There’s a dark side to all of this, of course. Clerici is clearly evil, willing to exploit anyone to advance his status. Bertolucci also suggests that Clerici is a repressed homosexual and that his desire to persecute others stems from his own self-loathing. In a flashback within a flashback (Bertolucci’s narrative structure is ambitious and sinuous), The Conformist shows that when Clerici was 13 years old, he bonded with an androgynous chauffeur (Pierre Clémenti). It’s never revealed whether the two had sex, but there’s a strong suggestion that the protagonist felt a strong attraction to the older man. The young Clerici murders the chauffeur after one encounter, violently renouncing his homosexual desires. As an adult, Clerici flippantly confesses this to a priest—he’s an atheist, but he goes to confession to humor the traditional Giulia, who wants him to seek absolution before their wedding. The protagonist shows no remorse for the murder; moreover, he boasts of how he’ll hunt down subversives for the government.
Clerici is a model fascist, a creature of contempt and repression. As Jonathan Rosenbaum has written, the outlook of many Bertolucci films is rooted in a fusion of Marx and Freud. That outlook may achieve its full expression in The Conformist, as the protagonist’s politics mirror his unspoken feelings about himself. The movie doesn’t feel didactic in its message, though—the style is so overwhelming that the message becomes interwoven with a complex attitude about fascist decadence. As a result, the horror of The Conformist sneaks up on you, and it haunts you well after it ends.