Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Conformist

The ConformistWhat kind of man gets himself in such a pickle that --on his honeymoon --he's given a gun and asked to kill a professor he's always admired?

That is the question presented to us at the beginning of "The Conformist," as Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) sits in a Paris hotel room, waiting for the call that will tell him it's time to kill the professor. If you love movies, the answer --told in a series of flashbacks, and, on occasion, flashbacks within flashbacks --will make for one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences of your life.

Let's get the praise out of the way right off. Bernardo Bertolucci --known to most moviegoers for his Oscar-winning "The Last Emperor" and his down-and-dirty "Last Tango in Paris" --made "The Conformist" at 29. It is a young man's film, drenched in ambition. It is also Bertolucci's greatest film. Indeed, it is one of the ten greatest films I've ever seen.

My reasons?

First, "The Conformist" is beautiful in the extreme. The cinematographer was the great Vittorio Storaro, and his color palette is so exquisite that Francis Ford Coppola watched this film over and over before making "The Godfather" --and then hired Storaro to shoot "Apocalypse Now." The production designer was Ferdinando Scarfiotti, whose credits include "Death in Venice" and "Scarface." And Georges Delerue, who did the scores for "Jules and Jim" and "Platoon", composed the music.

Then there is the acting. Trintignant is one of the most familiar faces in French cinema; this is the performance of his life. But mostly, I want to praise Dominique Sanda, then just 22 years old and making only her third movie. She plays the professor's wife, and she unfailingly strikes a remarkable balance --on one hand, she's the loyal spouse, on another, she's a bi-sexual flirt, and on yet a third, she's the only character in the story who senses the tragedy that lies ahead.

And, finally, there is the story, adapted from the novel by Alberto Moravia, one of Italy's most seductive novelists. Sex is almost a character for Moravia, and it certainly is here --as the title suggests, Clerici's greatest desire is to be normal, to be one of the faceless masses, to conform.

That's not so easily done in Italy in 1936. Mussolini has brought down the Fascist boot; progressives have fled the country. So Clerici takes a rich, vapid wife. He makes his accommodation with the government. And with that --he thinks --he's safe.

But there are no hiding places in life --and certainly not in a dictatorship of madmen. And then there is the question of the past: How do you acquire a "normal" life if you never had one before? As we flash back, we see that Clerici's privileged childhood was anything but normal. His mother awoke at noon, looking for her first shot of the day. He was raised by nannies. And then there was the encounter with the chauffeur...

What Bertolucci is exploring here is the equation of politics with sex. In a film financed by an American studio, that equation would be explicit and vulgar. Here, every connection is made through imagery and suggestion. Your jaw will drop at scene after scene, but you'll be on the edge of your seat during one in particular --an evening at a Parisian dance hall when Sanda dances with Clerici's wife. It's a breathtaking seduction, hotter in some ways than sex itself.

Why does Clerici freeze when he's given a gun? Can he kill the professor? What happens to Sanda? And, jumping ahead, what does the Fascist's defeat mean for Clerici? Bertolucci's screenplay is brilliant on these key questions; you are always leaning in, thinking it through, putting the puzzle together. And, of course, you are invited to imagine --as we always do in great films --how would I handle this? What would I do if I were Clerici?

And now I must share some tragic news: "The Conformist" is not available on DVD. There's only a VHS. The consolation: Storaro oversaw the transfer. Still, the difficulty of seeing this remarkable film is an injustice that somebody really ought to fix.

For those too frustrated to rent or acquire a VHS tape of "The Conversation," let me recommend "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis", also starring Dominique Sanda, made a year later and exploring some of the same themes. Or you could read Alberto Moravia's novel. But be warned: This is that rare case --a movie so much better than the book that reading it is a disappointment.

I just want to add my voice to those asking pleading for The Conformist to be released in a subtitled version on DVD. I first saw The Conformist when it was released about 35 years ago, and have had the good fortune to see it a few times since. (At the risk of rubbing salt in the wound of reviewer James Luckard, I did get to see it when it was at the Nuart in L.A. two years ago.) This film is just absolutely stunning in every way Jean-Louis Trintignant is of course a great actor, but the thing I find so overwhelming with this film is the way the story, the acting, the cinematography, the lighting, the music, everything just comes together so well.

Buy The Conformist Now

Break out the brass section, the DVD has arrived. This landmark film like fine wine, now that it has been remastered by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, and presented with color intact in widescreen in Italian and French, emerges as a true classic. The dispicable VHS dubbed panned & scanned version that we have been watching for over 20 years can be "retired". Bernardo Bertolucci's truth is once again on display. This release sparkles with clarity, and we can thrill to the carefully presented imagery and the powerful symbolism.

Bertolucci, under 30 when he directed CONFORMIST, has become a wonderfully gifted and powerful force in cinema; and never more so than in this fledging effort. He must have storyboarded every moment. The film is tighter than a Rolex; no wasted seconds or icons. In this film he began to explore the vistas of sensuality and sexuality that only two short years later would blossom into THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972); and then would spill out all over the lens and screen in his latest effort, THE DREAMERS (2003).

Alberto Moravia wrote the original novel at over 300 pages. Bertolucci did a marvelous job of extracting the essence of the protagonist, Marcello Clerici, and constructing a fabulous film, complex, lyrical yet brutal, beautiful yet shocking, shallow one moment and lethal the next, full of madness, repressed homosexuality, religious hypocracy, petty politicos, blind people, assassins, victims, and a never ending line of characters being cajoled or abused or eliminated or shamed or extolled. This is the Italy of the late 30's and early 40's, when the bald bulldog, Mussolini, strutted in the shadow of Hitler, dreaming of a new Roman Empire --about ordinary citizens who either resisted the Fascists or joined them. The ones who "resisted" had to be hunted down and eliminated by the ones who "accepted" Fascista "normalcy".

This is a film that needs to be seen more than once. The film opens mid-thrid act, and speeds its entirity in flashback, bringing us up to speed. Just one viewing leaves even the hardiest film buff limp and confused. Somewhere during the 2nd or 3rd viewing, Bertolucci's motives make themselves accessible and evident.

Jean-Louis Trintignant is the perfect Clerici, a successful professor, a loner, who wants to bet married and become a member of the Brown Shirts in order to "fit in"; and along the way we discover the dark side of his nature, confirming his cowardice and true nature. Stefania Sandrelli was very lovely as Guila, the young wife. But the film was stolen by the smoldering sexuality of Dominque Sanda, striking a Marlene Dietrich pose in tight pants, with her hands in her pockets, and a cigarette dangling out of one corner of her mouth. She is a woman of huge appetites and dark secrets.

Read Best Reviews of The Conformist Here

I agree that The Conformist should be released on DVD. I also agree with the reviewer who said that The Conformist is undoubtedly Bertolucci's finest film and perhaps his only true masterwork. However, the dubbing is atrocious--and a similar problem exists with Truffaut's Day for Night--another film that is unavailable on DVD and which has previously been available only in a dubbed version. Since I have seen The Conformist in the theater in the original language, I am confident that they could--with a little effort--release The Conformist in Italian. The Conformist is a truly great film--with stunning cinematography. Bertolucci explores the question of why an intelligent thinker would care to become a fascist. The answer is complex, startling and not ever comforting. It's truly a shame that it has not yet been released on DVD; but it would be a travesty to release it on DVD as a dubbed version (as if voice is not part of acting.)

Want The Conformist Discount?

When I found THE CONFORMIST in dvd I couldn't believe my eyes. The movie in fact is not available on dvd format in Europe. The quality of the dvd is pretty good and surprised me since we are talking of a reletively old movie. Even the italian soundtrack is good, in spite of the mono. I met some minor problems with the subtitles, but let me also add that their choice is wide. The 16/9 ratio respects the original and it looks great even on a big plasma screen. The interviews of Bertolucci and Storaro (in English!) in the extra make the whole thing a must. This version of THE CONFORMIST includes a 5 minutes scene (interesting enough for its symbolism) that was deleted at the time of the opening. I fully agreed with those who consider THE CONFORMIST Bertolucci's best flm. If you like this sort of films, I may suggest LACOMBE LUCIEN by Louis Malle, MR. KLEIN by Joseph Losey, NOVECENTO by Bertolucci himself, IL GIARDINO DEI FINZI CONTINI by Vittorio De Sica (Oscar in 1971 as Best foreign picture). They are all unique in their own way, but they deal with the same historical period, and they are all great examples of Cinema.

No comments:

Post a Comment