Friday, December 17, 2010

Bertolucci’s The Conformist

Due to a family emergency, reviews might be slow in coming over the next few days.--J.B.

Cogs love their machines. So it is with Marcello Clerici, a typically banal fascist who willingly sacrifices his soul to claim a place in Mussolini’s state during the course of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, which begins a special one week revival run today at Film Forum.

As envisioned by Bertolucci, Mussolini’s Italy is all about two things: architecture and sex. The former is severe and imposing, while the latter is rather decadent. In contrast, the individual counts for little, so perhaps Clerici really is not giving up much by relinquishing his sense of self. Though not a particularly dynamic individual, he has married Giulia, who is attractive yet both coquettish and bourgeoisie. At least their marriage offers Clerici what he considers the structure of “normalcy.”

Clerici’s honeymoon also provides a pretext to travel to Paris on an assignment for the government. He has orders to assassinate his former professor, Luca Quadri, a prominent anti-Fascist now living in exile. Even though Quadri and his trophy wife Anna fully understand Clerici’s politics, they welcome the couple into their home, perhaps because they both appear to be attracted to Giulia. Further contributing to the sexual tension, Clerici develops a passionate fixation on Anna. It all unfolds like tragic spectacle under Bertolucci’s operatic direction.

Though French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant is perfectly cast as the wan Clerici (putting the anti in anti-hero), Conformist is really defined by the work of Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Indeed, the director’s bold use of the ostentatious fascist backdrops effectively dehumanizes the characters, while Storaro’s light and shadows are often quite eerie.

There is also rather a lot of sexual content in Conformist, but unlike his notorious (and problematic) Last Tango in Paris, it serves a greater point by illustrating the moral rot of the totalitarian system. It is also more restrained and suggestive, rather than intentionally scandalous.

Conformist is one of Bertolucci’s two straight-up masterpieces, along with The Last Emperor. A chilling political morality play and a great art-house film, Conformist still retains its full power. It opens today (12/17) in New York for a special weeklong engagement at Film Forum.