I sat down to watch Bertolucci’s Il Conformista (1970) with a feeling of excited anticipation. Here was one of the greatest European directors, whose body of work is highly regarded. Arguably not quite as much as other European stylists and provocateurs such as Antonioni and Godard, or his fellow countrymen, Fellini, who has four films regularly appearing in critics and directors Top Ten lists.
What I did know of his work already were the films in the middle to late part of his career: The Last Emperor (1987), The Sheltering Sky (1990), Little Buddha and Stealing Beauty. I knew his films were sumptuous and when the credit in the opening titles of his frequent cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro – one of the greatest in the history of film – presented itself, I felt another thrill of expectation. Together, Bertolucci and Storaro have created hundreds of the most extraordinarily beautiful images in all of cinema.
Everything after the titles ended, underwhelmed me. The anti-hero, Marcello, receives a phonecall, he leaves his wife asleep on the bed, and heads out on an assignment, and during the journey – to wherever he is headed by car - he recalls many things that have shaped his life and brought him to this point.
Through flashbacks the viewer learns of his rape as a child by the family chauffeur, his institutionalized father, his love for and marriage to Giulia, and his overwhelming need to fit in, to be regarded as normal, to act in ways he is expected to act: to conform.
The task that he’s been set is to ingratiate himself into the company of his former teacher, an anti-Fascist, and assassinate him. The timing of his wedding to Giulia and his journey to France on his honeymoon, is a perfect reason for him to visit Professor Quadri and his wife Anna. The two couples bond and Marcello once again conforms, this time to be accepted by Quadri.
The film’s climax is a stunningly photographed scene of men running out from amongst the trees, plunging their knives into the professor and chasing down and killing his wife Anna, whose trust Marcello has also earned.
Some years later, in July 1943, Benito Mussollini who the conformist served faithfully, was deposed and replaced as Prime Minister, ending his dictatorship. Marcello hears what has happened. He becomes upset, greatly agitated, and the ending leaves the viewer to see Marcello to still be a man who is haunted by his encounter with the chauffeur, a man he thought he had shot in killed in self-defense, but who may still be alive, and now haunted by his betrayal of, and his part in the murder of, Professor Quadri.
Il Conformista is structured in a way that is certainly not like traditional English-American narrative, but is not significantly new either. There’s a specific objective set up, and flashbacks to various parts of Marcello’s life, reveal who he is and why he’s doing what he’s doing.
Some of the scenes are beautiful, and the film gently pushes at the boundaries of what is accepted in terms of sex, showing the pederast chauffeur, the end of a lesbian encounter between Giulia and Anna, and some nudity. In terms of what Ingmar Bergman had already shown in The Virgin Spring (1960), Il Conformista doesn’t really even provide something new in terms of sex and violence.
The thriller aspects of the film are subservient to the characterisation of Marcello and the way the film finds many different ways to describe how is just a follower: weak-willed and ineffectual. As a character study, it certainly works, but as a thriller there is never any sense of building towards a climax. The splitting of the scenes into various flashbacks naturally works against the pace and flow of the film. There is no accumulation of tension leading up to the killing of Quadri. The flashbacks dissipate any sense of energy, and as author of the screenplay and director, one can say with certainty that this was Bertolucci’s deliberate intention. What Bertolucci is foregrounding is an analysis of Marcello’s character, and the elements of a thriller are merely a framework within which to reveal aspects of Marcello, by learning what has happened to him.
Bertolucci does, however, when he gets to the actual scene of the murder, want to make the film a thriller and a character-driven piece at that point. Marcello’s political impotence is underlined again. He was given a gun and a silencer earlier in the film. Clearly, it wasn’t for his protection but to be used in carrying out his assignment. Instead, he sits in the backseat of a car and watches other men do his work. He sits there and watches Anna come up to the backseat window, looking at him desperately. In her face are the combined emotions of “please, help me” and the dawning knowledge that he has in fact betrayed her.
The fact that I didn’t find the film pulled me into the story, whereas Taxi Driver – as an American example – did, shows that I’m actually not in a position yet to understand this film in the context of what other non-English-speaking cinema was doing in the 1960s and 1970s. Brought up on a diet of American blockbusters, even the fact that I spent a lot of my youth delving into English-speaking arthouse films in the 1980s and 90s as well as foreign films – which I loved – by Kieslwoski, Almodovar, Beineix, Besson and Schlondorff. Realistically speaking, however, this doesn’t give me much of a context for understanding European films in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Many critics and academics like Vincent Canby, Pauline Kael, Judith Crist, David Thomson, Rex Reed and Andrew Sarris were already studying film and working when post-World War II and “New Wave” filmmaking swept across Europe. I’ve seen some of these films in my film studies in the early 1980s but again not with much context.
When I started out watching three Ingmar Bergman films, Persona, The Seventh Veil and Fanny and Alexander, I didn’t have a context for understanding them either. Of course, what that led me to was eventually seeing twelve Ingmar Bergman instead of the planned three. What it gave me was crash course in Ingmar Bergman, and a new knowledge and understanding of what an incredible artist he was.
Now that I have read quite a few opinions from critics who were around that particular film scene I realize that it’s my lack of understanding that disallows me entry into Il Conformista.
The best way for me to move forward from this point is to bring forward all the Antonioni, Rossellini, De Sica, Fellini, Godard, Truffaut, Bunuel and Dreyer films and live in the Europe of the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s for the next eight weeks. Full immersion should help me discover more about that style of filmmaking and bit by bit give me entry to that world.
David Thomson, from The Observer, put Il Conformista into his Top Ten films of all time. So did Paul Schrader, author of Taxi Driver. That made me really sit up and want to know, “Why?”
“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.
“The Conformist”… is an acutely contemporary political figure. And a hunched model of our weaknesses. So the film is an entrancing personal story that trips responsibility into our lap…
Bertolucci, who was only 30… was dedicated to a rich style drawn from Renoir and Rossellini, the notion of putting the fullness of events (spatially, socially, emotionally) on screen… From first to last, The Conformist is so comprehensively designed and so daringly shot… 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… 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).
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… 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.”
“What makes Bernardo Bertolucci’s films different from the work of older directors is an extraordinary combination of visual richness… [H]is films just seem to flow, as if the he photographs had not been set up for the camera but were all there and he were moving in and out of it at will. Most young filmmakers now don’t attempt period stories – but Bertolucci, because of the phenomenal case of his sweeping romanticism, is ideally suited to them. [H]e moves into the past, as he works in the present, with a lyrical freedom almost unknown in the history of movies… [H]e has a poet’s gift for using objects, landscapes, and people expressively, so that they all become part of his vision. It is this gift that makes “The Conformist” a sumptuous, emotionally charged experience…
I think it’s not unfair to say that except for Jean-Louis Trintignant’s grasp of the central character… the major interest is in the way everything is imbued with a sense of the past. It’s… Bertolucci’s evocation of the past – the thirties made expressive through the poetry of images.
The Conformist is his most accessible , least difficult film from an audience point of view. I don’t put that accessibility down; despite the intermittent brilliance of [a previous film] “Partner”… [it was] a failure… The Conformist, though in some ways less audacious, is infinitely more satisfying. In this film, one knows that Bertolucci knows who he is and what he’s doing; young as he is, he’s a master director. Except for the unconvincing and poorly stage concluding sequence, the flaws in The Conformist are niggling… Bertolucci uses an organizing idea that puts an unnecessary strain on the viewer: the film begins with the dawn of the assassination day, and the events that led up to it unfold while Trintignant and a Facist are driving to the forest… [B]ut as one gets caught up in the imagery that slight confusion no longer matters. In a Bertolucci film, in any case, there are occasional images that have no logical explanation but that work on an instinctive level – as surreal poetry.”
However I don’t think The Conformist is a great movie. It’s the best movie this year by far, and it’s a film by a prodigy who – if we’re all lucky – is going to make great films. But it’s a triumph of style; the substance is not sufficiently liberated, and one may begin to feel a little queasy about the way the movie left luxuriates in Fascist decadence.”
- Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, 1970
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