David Thomson's Top Ten Films: The Conformist

See this film, see the worst of us all
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The Independent Culture

7.

Film has a capacity for glorious, meticulous nostalgia – look, it says, I will take you back to an age and a mood, all embodied in this story. That invitation was part of the appeal of The Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind or L es Enfants du Paradis. But those films are primarily escapist: the journey back in time is restful. Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist is their rival at bringing an era to life. But it goes much further into moral discomfort.

For "The Conformist" – the shy, timid man who watches everything, who wants to be "normal" – is an acutely contemporary political figure. And a hunched model of our weaknesses. So the film is an entrancing personal story that tips responsibility into our lap.

Bertolucci, who was only 30 when he made The Conformist, was educated by the history of film, by reading, by psycho-analysis; plus, of course, the record of his country, Italy. He was dedicated to a rich style drawn from Renoir and Rossellini, the notion of putting the fullness of events (spatially, socially, emotionally) on screen. And he made a very fruitful alliance with the cameraman, Vittorio Storaro, and the production designer, Ferdinando Scarfiotti, that is still a landmark in collaboration. From first to last, The Conformist is so comprehensively designed and so daringly shot (not forgetting the sinister, haunting score by Georges Delerue), that it draws attention to itself.

That has two, distinct effects: first, there is a flagrancy in the imagery verging on over-ripeness or decadence, that becomes identified with the fascist society on the edge of tyranny. Thus, the minister's office is only an exaggeration of a tendency evident all through the film (especially in the asylum where the hero's father is confined). Second, this style becomes the voice of the film – sophisticated, ironic, but ultimately disillusioned, compelled to face the raw violence of the climax (Bertolucci is still incapable of shooting it so that the gunfire and the horror are less than ravishing).

Put those two together, and you have an absorbing ambivalence. For the hero, Clerici, is not likeable, or anyone we can identify with. Still, he is the passive, cowardly personality seeing the story – and, in the end, acting as its instrument. His intelligence (not doubted) arranges the style. His feelings (not questioned) account for the network of loyalty and betrayal that pervades the film. And nothing is more disturbing than his telling this story, to himself and to us. For we have been made accomplices with this chilly beetle, half-hidden in the car used for assassination, but reliving the scars of his past like a fetishist.

For what it comes to, finally, in Alberto Moravia's vision (his is the novel the film is based on), is that Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a conformist, one who would rather go along with things, no matter where that leads. And while none of us would like to be called a fascist, still we have to admit the strains of conformity that dog us, and which we cling to.

Clerici behaves wretchedly: he marries a sexy idiot (Stefania Sandrelli), and then falls in love with a strange, self-destructive woman (Dominique Sanda); he assists in the assassination of that woman and her husband, an older man, and his professor once; it is revealed that he also murdered the homosexual chauffeur who had seduced him when he was a child. In other words, though apparently a successful man, he is chronically immature, a spiteful voyeur.

I'm not sure if this occurred to Bertolucci at the time, but in hindsight it's easier to see that metaphor covering all of us – as film-goers. So there is a mordant undertone, as if to say that sitting in the dark, being entranced, is a first lesson in fascism. From that we may recall that the political leaders of the 20th century who most welcomed and exploited film were its tyrants.

Bertolucci works on, of course – with the notorious but far less interesting Last Tango in Paris; with 1900 (an unduly profuse re-make of The Conformist); and so on, up to The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky and Stealing Beauty (not a bad sub-title for this film). He remains a master of stylistic cinema; he is drawn rather modishly to the right kind of fatalistic material; and he can do superb things – some of The Sheltering Sky is as forbidding as the book. But he no longer makes films as dangerous as The Conformist. And so his "decline" stands as a warning on how perilous it is to find a naturalistic way of telling stories on film nowadays. Bertolucci was never the radical that Godard was, for instance. But there are two men, 60 and 70 now, who simply are not making the great works we might have expected. Their fault? Perhaps. But ours too. We are part of the dire conformity that dismays them.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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