Bernardo Bertolucci may be more familiar to modern audiences for his grand epics like The Last Emperor, but in the early 1970s he was a key figure in Europe's art cinema scene. With The Conformist he combined the radical ideas of his mentor Jean-Luc Godard with a more digestible thriller format, gaining instant international acclaim. Although it remains a dense and intellectual exercise, its relatively conventional hit-man plot and sumptuous photography make it an accessible entry point into the politically charged European filmmaking of the era.
Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Clerici, the titular conformist who's desperate to fit in with the prevailing mood of fascism sweeping 1930s Italy. After joining a paramilitary group he's assigned to assassinate a subversive professor who taught him at college. Combining the execution order with his honeymoon, he takes his new wife to liberal Paris but finds himself haunted by indecision as he falls for the professor's irresistible bohemian wife. Through flashbacks we later realise that Clerici's political views and obsession with convention both derive from a disturbing episode in his childhood that left him repressed and tormented.
"ONE OF THE TRULY GREAT FILMS OF THE 1970S"
With its complex narrative structure and its references to Freudian psychology and left-wing politics, The Conformist is in some ways a demanding film. But visually it is unambiguously beautiful: Vittorio Storaro's cinematography uses darkness and shadows to highlight Clerici's fractured mental state, while Bertolucci entraps his characters within large, empty modernist buildings to convey a sense of fascist menace (surely an influence on Terry Gilliam). A potent mix of sex, psychology, politics and visual extravagance, The Conformist is one of the truly great films of the 1970s that shouldn't be missed on this big-screen re-release.
The Conformist (Il Conformista) is out in the UK on 29th February 2008.