The Conformist (18)

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The Independent Culture

Last Tango In Paris won Bertolucci the headlines, and The Last Emperor won him the Oscars, but it is this 1970 movie that deserves to be called his masterpiece.

A beautifully imagined portrait of moral and political cowardice, it stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as Clerici, a Mussolini-era aristocrat who is so bent on appearing "normal" that he volunteers to spy on his old university tutor for the secret police.

For such a stern reckoning of the fascist mindset this is an oddly romantic and dreamy film, built on set-pieces of bravura vividness – a dance of the blind, a visit to an asylum, a church confessional and, most memorably, the lovely tango between Clerici's wife (Stefania Sandrelli) and the killer blonde (Dominique Sanda, perhaps the most beautiful woman in movies at the time).

Trintignant himself is magnificent as the political trimmer, his face a more vulpine version of Bogart's and his deep-socketed eyes alive with calculation. He haunts the movie right to the end, paralysed as he watches a double assassination in a snowbound forest, and then paranoid when his ghosts return to startle him in the street. A character study, an indictment of "normality", a cautionary tale – but most of all, a great movie.