We are showing this film in our Classic slot, in conjunction with the Wivenhoe Film Club, so please note that it will be at the Nottage Maritime Institute and is a weekend showing. There will be an introductory talk and time for discussion afterwards.
It is a film that won awards in 1970, when it was first released, including at the Berlin Film Festival, for Direction, Screenplay and Cinematography. It regularly appears on lists of the best films ever, for example it is at number 13 on the Guardian’s 25 Best Arthouse films of all time and is in the top 80 of the Best Directed films, according to the Directors’ Guild of America. We are showing it because not only is it a fine example of what cinema can achieve but it has contemporary resonance, the subject matter being the swing to the right in 1930s Europe.
It’s easier to describe the historical importance and immense influence of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist than to describe what it’s about. It is difficult to separate form and substance with The Conformist and the minute you say that it’s primarily an exercise in prodigious visual style, or that it’s a political thriller about a Fascist secret policeman on a murderous mission in France, you have committed an error. Either or both of those descriptions make The Conformist seem less peculiar, less unusual, than it is. The unsettling blend of images and ideas in this movie cannot satisfactorily be disentangled or decoded, and it’s the very strangeness of Bertolucci’s masterpiece that has made it so influential in cinema history.
The Conformist may feel alienating or confusing to contemporary viewers accustomed to certain conventions of narrative and realism. That alienating effect was part of Bertolucci’s design from the beginning, which was driven more by a distinctive late-‘60s combination of Freudian psychology and Marxist ideology, and also by the confrontational mode of Brechtian theatre, than by the Hollywood pattern. The acting is undeniably hit-and-miss, and sometimes deliberately histrionic in the Italian style. Iconic French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant gives a memorable performance in the title role of Marcello Clerici, an Italian aristocrat who volunteers to be a secret agent for Mussolini’s regime, but it’s the kind of performance that reveals by concealing.
The story proceeds in great leaps from one episode to another, many of them unrealistic or dreamlike. In fact, it’s not so much a sequence of episodes as a sequence of images: Clerici goes from the vast, empty spaces of Fascist-modernist office buildings to a mental hospital that appears to be outdoors to a crowded ballroom of Parisian dancers.
Even if you’ve never seen the film, you’ve seen other films or TV episodes or commercials or other elements of visual culture that were shaped by it. Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films were heavily influenced by the flashback structure, expressionist color scheme and haunted, menacing mood of The Conformist. Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer would go on to shoot several later Coppola films, most notably Apocalypse Now, as well as the distinctly Bertolucci-like Reds for Warren Beatty.
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