The Conformist (1970)

The Greenbelt 3 leg of the Italian Film Festival has been over for two weeks, yet here I am still with a backlog of its movies to review. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Il Conformista consistently ranks as one of the best films in cinema history. Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a Fascist spy ordered to kill his former professor, now a political refugee residing in Paris. Using his honeymoon with Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) as a cover, he undertakes his mission with determination, but soon finds himself paralyzed by political and sexual doubts, exacerbated by encounters with Anna (Dominique Sanda), the professor’s enigmatic wife.

The conformist is an irritating character. Through all of his dilemmas Clerici does not arouse sympathy, only contempt. Until the end, he remains a self-serving coward who does not know where to position himself in a dangerous arena and therefore strives to cover all grounds. He is intentionally portrayed as a despicable creature. By contrast, the women that surround him—Giulia and Anna—are incomparably beautiful. In the dirty world of politics, they stand out as stunning jewels on screen, but that beauty that is not spared by the horrific activities that occur in and across their lives. Anna, especially, becomes deeply entrenched in tragedy. But in a way all of their lives end in tragedy, to varying degrees. That the ending feels so strongly unsettling rests on this point, for it depicts not only the fall of Italian Fascism, but also the personal demise of many individuals.

“Ravishing to the eye but less than fully satisfying to the mind,” judges Jonathan Rosenbaum of Chicago Reader. Recently it feels like Rotten Tomatoes reviewers know exactly what I want to say. Undoubtedly, the cinematography is breathtaking. I will never forget that scene with the autumn leaves. The suspense was also handled well, especially in the last part. In place of a dramatic soundtrack you have instead an eerie quiet that makes you feel all the more anxious. Even the last scene’s continuing allusion to Plato’s cave feels subtle and well-suited, not at all hyperbolic. Still, despite all these, The Conformist comes across as a very dry film (Maki fell asleep quickly, but then he was very tired). At least for me, it doesn’t have an emotional hook, only an aesthetic appeal. It’s probably a consequence of my ignorance, but I just can’t imagine this as one of my favorite movies.

‘I want to confess today the sins I’ll commit tomorrow.’

‘…a normal man is one who turns his head to look at a beautiful woman in the street. But he is not the only one. He sees that there are five or six others looking, and he is glad to find people who are like him, his equals.’

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