The Conformist (1970) is a film of visual wonders that takes place in a world of moral horrors. It features some of the most beautiful shots you’ll ever see as well as very dark dramatic situations. But what makes this film so memorable isn’t just the fact that it is visually dazzling or expertly explores its protagonist’s unique brand of murky morality. Instead, what makes it a great work of cinematic art is how director Bernardo Bertolucci and his collaborators create tension between the beauty of their style and the horror of their story.
This movie mostly takes place in the 1930s. It begins with Italian Fascist Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) taking an ominous trip to the French countryside from Paris. As his superior, Special Agent Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) drives, Cleric recalls the experiences that have resulted in him helping plan an upcoming assassination attempt on his former college professor, Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio). Everything that has led up to this moment is fueled by his greatest desire: to conform to the rules of the society around him.
It is somewhat ironic that a film about a man who seeks to be ordinary would have a cinematic style that can only be described as extraordinary. Bertolucci and his director of photography Vittorio Storaro (who would go on to shoot Apocalypse Now  and Reds ) create a feast for your eyes. Their use of color is exquisite and multipurpose. Bertolucci and Storaro use it for symbolism (red representing imprisonment from the first shot of a neon sign) and to delineate different locations (blue for Paris and more neutral tones for Fascist buildings in Italy). Some of their shots, such as one of a servant eating a bowl of pasta as she spies on her superiors, are so well-composed that they feel like paintings that have come to life. In addition, Bertolucci and Storaro create elegant tracking shots with a camera that occasionally feels weightless.
But the most interesting thing about this film’s visual style are the little details which Bertolucci and Storaro litter throughout their scenes like confetti. Sometimes they add some zest to a scene, as when a group of female singers perform behind Clerici as he articulates his desire to be normal. Other times they act contrapuntally to Clerici’s feelings, like the photo of comedic duo Laurel and Hardy which is stuck to a window and covers half of Clerici’s face as he broods about the upcoming attack on Quadri. But all of these details work in harmony to create a tapestry of visual richness which makes you feel like you are in a heightened version of reality.
These beautiful shots stand in stark contrast to the story’s bleak thematic material. The Conformist tackles everything from the rise of Fascism in 20th-century Europe to child sexual abuse. Its protagonist is a Fascist who remains watchable despite his adherence to that ideology, his efforts to plot the murder of his former college professor, and romantic pursuit of that man’s wife. This film is also a searing indictment of the desire to conform, as it leads Clerici to commit all sorts of crimes before ultimately betraying everything in his life he holds dear.
This is dark terrain for a film that director and film historian Mark Cousins once noted had a visual style influenced by musicals. But the true greatness of The Conformist lies in how natural beauty can act as an ironic counterpoint to the evil of human beings. The visually vibrant world that Bertolucci and Storaro create serves to throw the ethical complexities and failings of their characters into sharper relief. The look of the film is so stylized that it makes everything else about it feel sharper and more vivid, creating tension between the ethically fallible characters and the beautiful stage on which they act out the dramas of their lives.
This approach to having natural beauty act as a counterpoint to the morally ambiguous actions of the main characters can be seen clearly in a scene set on Clerici’s honeymoon. As Clerici and his new wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) take a train ride to Paris, they kiss and eventually have sex. It is the type of sexual encounter that is arguably the most “normalized” in western culture, and therefore the one which Clerici most desires so he can fit into mainstream society. But what leads Clerici to initiate sex with her isn’t based on a normal quality like his attraction to her appearance or a connection based on mutual interests. Instead, his actions are prompted by Giulia’s confession that an older male friend of her family forced her into a sexual relationship with him that lasted for six years when she was fifteen. This makes their sexual encounter feel problematic as opposed to having the sense of normalcy which Clerici craves. But Bertolucci makes this scene feel even more complex by filming it with one of the most gorgeous sunsets I have ever seen in the background, creating tension between the vulgarity of its main characters and the purity of the visual splendor which surrounds them. Bertolucci even throws in one of the little details that he and Storaro love when he has Giulia lift up her legs so she can slip off her high heels without using her hands in the bottom of the frame in a later part of the scene after the sun has set. This sequence is a microcosm of The Conformist in its use of nature’s great beauty to act as a contrast to a complex dramatic situation, complete with an indelible visual detail.
The Conformist was a critical and financial success when it was first released. It has also proved an influential film that has had an effect on everything from The Godfather: Part II to the “Pine Barrens” episode of The Sopranos and even the dance sequence in Clueless (1995). But its mixture of visual beauty and morally murky situations remains potent in its own right. It is a film to which you can return to again and again, always noticing a new detail of visual delight, a new note of narrative horror, and a new moment in which the tension between them is palpable.
A new 4K restoration of The Conformist will be screened at IU Cinema on January 24.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.
Jesse PasternackJesse Pasternack
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