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Film Review: "The Conformist" (1970)

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The Conformist

'I want to see how a dictatorship falls.'

Il Conformista or The Conformist is an inward mirror aimed at societal norms and the want of men to fit in. It marvels at the lengths to which they will go to attain it. Being different, though considered a virtue, is scoffed at. Only those that follow the herd mentality are truly accepted. In such a cold atmosphere, if you don't conform, you may have a hard time at your hands.

This is unquestionably Bertoluccis most personal film

Director Bernardo Bertolucchi's feature film, based on 1951's eponymous novel, is yet another one of his politically charged satires that question the institutions, the established orders, and most of all, the motives of men in power. However, the film lacks the grandiose of his much-celebrated The Last Emperor, a three-hour plus historical drama that bared open the power struggle caused by the transition from Chinese monarchy to democratic-cum-militariship. It also lacks the character depth and turmoil of his much divisive 1900, a five-hour and 20-minute long magnum opus that centered on class struggle during fascist Italy. It would be a tall task comparing these fine works with any director's filmography. In that sense, it should also be noted that this film came out much earlier than those two. There should be no question, however, that The Conformist is his most personal film.

The film also has many similarities to the aforementioned 1900, as this one is also based on Mussolini's fascism gripped Italy. Both of them adopt non-linear narratives; both begin in the present and then travel in the past through long flashbacks. Both involve long-time jumps that takes the narration forward. But most of all both films involve men who bear the brunt of a society that differentiates based on class, creed, and religion among other things. Both involve men who believe killing someone who deviates is an honor needed to be done for his motherland.

This one is centered on a man named Dottore Marcello Clerici. The film focuses on three important facets of his life. The first one is a romantic alliance with Guilia, whom he intends to marry because she offers him a chance at a normal life. The second one is his friendship with Italo Montanari, a man he shares a close bond with due to their similar political views and their socially awkward behavior. The third, and the one which occupies the most screen time, is his professional commitment to a secret organization where he works as a spy for the supreme authority. Their organization wants to suppress those opposing the anti-Semitic wave and will not tolerate dissent. It is easier to foresee that all three will overlap in some way leading to a volcanic turmoil for the Clerici. He is tasked with assassinating professor Quadri, a leftist exiling in Paris, who had once taken a shine on Clerici during his college days. Clerici decides to honeymoon there with the ulterior motive of completing the job.

Dazzling cinematography of The Conformist.

Dazzling cinematography of The Conformist.

Marcello's life is based on a lie. A chance encounter with a chauffeur named Lino leads to a tragic accident. Here, Bertolucci remotely explores the themes of homosexuality and indiscipline. This incident has such a negative effect on the man that he decides to change his outlook entirely and live a life that is acceptable to others. Such a drastic step expectedly causes a psychic strain on him. He adopts the pervasive ideology of the time irrespective of his own discomfort for the same. He may have a bohemian soul but wishes to settle down because that is what people do. He is an atheist but agrees to a confession so as to satisfy his fiancé's traditional Roman Catholic parents. So while he climbs the steps of the social order his humanity witnesses a moral downfall. Italo mentions in a scene that a normal man is a true brother, a true citizen, and a true patriot. Pat comes to Clerici's reply that it means being a true fascist. Needless to say, all the focal characters here are injected with their part in the sect. Even Guila for that matter plays the societal part when she mentions knowing about his secret activities but not caring about the same since she is 'a loving wife.'

Jean-Louis Trintignant has completely immersed himself as the protagonist. His long contemplating stares will stay with you even after the end credits roll. Stefania Sandrelli as Guila manages to shine even in the confinement of her role. Gastone Moschin as the agent Manganiello is unpredictable as he switches from comic relief and stern silences in ensuing scenes. Dominique Sanda as the young Mrs. Quadri is a bit of a disappointment here knowing fully her caliber. She had held her own against stalwarts like Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu in 1900 and with the benefit of retrospection, this role doesn't do her full justice. Jose Quaglio as his blind friend Italo is affable and exudes warmth. It highlights how even simple souls may end up supporting something as tormenting as fascism.

Breathtaking shot from The Conformist (1970).

Breathtaking shot from The Conformist (1970).

More than anything else, The Conformist should be regarded as a glimpse of what was to come ahead from the talented Bertolucci. Many shots in the film are done with utmost beauty that you can only laud the man at the helm. The rainy scene between Clerici and Manganiello in the car objectively has a viper on the windshield acting like a wedge between them that intends to highlight the difference in the natures and deliberations of the two men. The scene towards the end between the married couple with one standing in the room and the other in the hallway highlights the distance in their relationship. Clerici's outrage for his repressed sexuality is also esthetically shot. Even the scene in Paris between the two wives at the dance hall is rich and hints at lesbian awakenings. The scene where supporters of the newly elected democratic leader sweep the fascist supporter Italo with them is another highlight and so is Clerici's reunion scene with Professor Quadri. Vittorio Storaro elevates the film with his magnificent cinematography.

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Compared to his other films it is a bit strange that the running time of this one is less than two hours considering the potential of the source material. The narrative may disappoint a bit due to its lack of urgency or stress but the astute direction towers above everything in the movie and it is a visual treat. Fans of his work or even aficionados of thinking cinema will not be disappointed with this offering.

© 2020 Cinemezza


Cinemezza (author) on April 28, 2020:


Sorry friend, i don't have a clue about the film you're talking about.

Jondavid842 on April 25, 2020:

I am searching for a movie please help me opening scene of movie guy helps the drunk girl at bar he takes her to his apartment later she wake up naked and run way from apartment later that day guy found out girl go to same high school

Cinemezza (author) on April 20, 2020:


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'm glad to know that you wish to see Bertolucci's work. Even though my favourite would be 1900, I'd suggest you try The Conformist itself. Then you can tell me your analysis of the same. I would look forward to discuss what worked for you and what didn't.

Bobby Denham on April 19, 2020:

Hey thank you for the article, it made me want to watch a movie of Bertolucci. Which one would you recommend me watching first?

Cinemezza (author) on April 17, 2020:

Guys this is just my second article here on hubpages. I would be delighted If some of you pitch in with a quality feedback. Love the experience of writing an article!!

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