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For college crowd of the early '70s Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist was the pinnacle of classy, smart Italian filmmaking. It only played briefly in a few art theaters and thereafter seemed to exist only in a handful of tattered prints that nevertheless dazzled us with Vittorio Storaro's cinematography. A grim character study relating politics to sexuality with a sophistication that eluded earlier "summer of '68" pro-revolution films, Bertolucci's intoxicating visuals lend a nostalgic sheen to a corrupt world of the past.
Paramount's long-awaited DVD presents a perfect transfer of this gem. It reinstates a deleted scene and lets most of us hear the films dialogue in Italian for the first time.
If The Conformist has a flaw, it's that every shot is a visual delight of settings and sights that overwhelm the narrative. The stylish Ferdinando Scarfiotti interiors are like an Italian fashion magazine with a purpose; the sight of Stefania Sandrelli dancing in a zig-zag dress in her mother's living room looks better than three decades' worth of homogenized MGM art direction. The enormous marble interiors of the Fascist headquarters say more about the Mussolini era than saluting mobs ever could. The movie is heavily stylized without looking like a stunt or a special effect.
The film abounds with rich contrasts. Light from Venetian blinds cuts up the warm Italian interiors; exterior shots use blazing sunsets and swirling leaves to nostalgic effect. Vittorio Storaro's lighting theories about emotional states of color come into play in Paris, where selected scenes are often filmed all in blue or red light. For anybody who has ever tried to make a film The Conformist is a humbling experience ... we're frequently astonished by the control of color in large interiors and the cooperation of nature in impossible locations, such as a cold and dark winter forest.
Fresh from an acclaimed film for television (The Spider's Strategem), Bertolucci interpreted a book by Alberto Moravia that addressed the nature of Fascism and the distortions of personality that it encourages. Marcello Clerici is a 'normal' guy who aspires to join an elite by making himself into the ultimate company man. A Fascist superior observes that Marcello is motivated neither by greed nor fanaticism, and a priest in the confessional is impressed by Marcello's desire to become supremely 'normal.' For Marcello, normalcy is a stable home life to hide his secret career as a political assassin. Fascism can't abide intellectuals like Professor Quadri and in fact, doesn't allow people to be publicly human -- Marcello fits into the system by becoming a monster, at least part way.
The film has tension because Marcello Clerici is more an opportunist than a Fascist; when the chips are down he finds he admires his prey and adores his prey's wife, emotions incompatible with his mission. The henchman associate Manganiello (Gastone Moschin, "Don Fanucci" in The Godfather Part II) knows that Marcello is a fake. Clerici plays with a gun like a little boy, as if trying to convince himself that he's a killer. Weirdly, both Marcello and Manganello are only spectators at the film's final ambush.
The Conformist compares well to the work of other esteemed European directors. The picture has a lush look but sees no need to be epic in scope; the group dance scene with the tango is just as 'alive' as anything in a Visconti movie. Bertolucci also shows more restraint in this film than American Visconti admirers Coppola and Scorsese, who continually use his design and camera talent. The exotic visuals never seem like a series of empty special effects, and the final violence in the frozen woods proves that Less is More by avoiding overblown editorial fireworks.
Jean-Louis Trintignant gives Marcello Clerici a vitality one wouldn't expect in such a mysterious, ambiguous character. Stefania Sandrelli (Seduced and Abandoned) and Dominque Sanda (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis) are beautifully contrasted and manage a weirdly convincing sexual connection; we're led to think that Marcello is trying to make himself the center of a perfect three-way relationship.
Bertolucci does verge on self-indulgence, at least once. The scene in which Clerici impresses Professor Quadri with a recitation of the riddle of Plato's Cave is a visual beauty, especially with Vittorio Storaro's shadow games at work. It's only when it is over that we realize that the Plato lesson is way below philosophy taught at an advanced level. When Quadri opens the window and banishes Clerici's "Fascistic" shadow ... it's all a bit too pat. That's an A- moment in a movie made of A+ scenes.
Paramount's DVD of The Conformist is a dazzling enhanced transfer with rich colors; it takes an artist like Storaro to show us what color on film can evoke. The disc will appeal to the many viewers that could only see flat dubbed copies, as the first menu up offers a tall list of audio choices: English, Italian, French, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. Subtitles are in English, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. Somebody's footage counter may be off on this extended edition. Bertolucci talks about a 125-minute cut, sources place other versions at 115 and 120 and the print on this disc clocks in at 111. And there is no evidence of a PAL speed-up. The inventive, evocative score is by Georges Delerue.
The extra is a three-part interview featurette with Bertolucci and Storaro, both of whom are excellent English speakers and capable of forming their thoughts into strong statements ... neither is just 'coming up with an answer.' We learn how the picture came about and how Bertolucci attracted his wonderful artistic collaborators. We also share his wistfulness when describing how the film became the sensation of New York film festivals, yet was given a tiny American release only after a write-in campaign by big American filmmakers. Extras producer Laurent Bouzereau fashions a perfectly sculpted docu that never bores. Bertolucci finishes his thoughts with a meditation on how a filmmaker looks at a movie he made 36 years before, when he was a completely different person.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Conformist rates: