One of the darlings of the European art cinema scene, Bernardo Bertolucci’s esteemed reputation rests more popularly with two very different films: Ultimo Tango a Parigi [Last Tango in Paris] (1973) and The Last Emperor (1987). If these two seem a little disparate, then it is perhaps his earlier masterpiece, Il Conformista, which can be seen to unite the two: a lush, visually stunning character study of sexual dysfunction, its causes and its disastrous effects.
At its core, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), one of cinema’s great monsters of passivity, a man so desperate for an everyday life that he ends up embroiling himself in Fascism, and ultimately murder. The setting is the Europe of the 1930s – where political battlelines are being drawn up from country to country, and loyalties tested to their fullest extents. But Clerici does not represent one of Mussolini’s partisans, he is something much more dangerous, and common; someone willing to go along with Il Duce and his acolytes simply to fit in with what is considered normal.
His marriage speaks volumes about his character; his soon-to-be wife, the beautiful Giulia (a never more alluring Stephania Sandrelli) is dull, needy, brainless, in many ways his perfect match. In a series of bizarre scenes we are introduced to the other significant figures in his life: his morphine-addicted mother, as decaying as the old family villa she resides in, and his father, now incarcerated in an eerie, garish lunatic asylum. But there is one figure that looms larger in Clerici’s consciousness; in flashback, we see the young Clerici saved from bullying at the hands of his schoolmates by a chauffeur, Lino, who then makes sexual advances towards him. The boy responds by taking the older man’s gun, shooting wildly around before realising that he has shot him.
Alberto Moravia’s source novel Il conformista (1951) makes more of the psycho-sexual problems arising from Clerici’s early life, but Bertolucci’s film wisely simplifies them for clarity’s sake. On the narrative plane, the film shows how his childhood trauma leads to his later dysfunctionality, from which springs a somewhat skewed desire to live what he perceives to be a normal existence, fascist or otherwise. So when, back in between-the-wars Italy, a colleague asks him for help in assassinating his former teacher, an anti-fascist who is now living in exile in Paris, he finds himself torn between his rather lacking sense of morality and his social ambition.
The strong themes explored here, coupled with the exceptional performances from its leads, would be more than enough to make Il Conformista a worthwhile film to watch. That the ambiguity of the central character would serve as a template for later conflicted screen villains, most notably Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972) and more especially The Godfather Part II (1974) is of particular interest. But what raises it to the heights of critical praise is its stunning use of cinematography to create its unsettling, seedy tone. Director of photography Vittorio Storaro here created a maelstrom of colour coding – the icy coldness of the whitewashed asylum where his father lives compared with the rich autumnal colours of his mother’s house a somewhat oedipal signpost, the cool parma violets of Paris (a punning reference to the director’s home town) contrasting with the hot reds found elsewhere. The full gamut of camera-trickery too: odd angles (a la The Third Man), expressionist-like shadows, pans, zooms – maybe this is what Martin Scorsese is always trying to out-do.
To complement this cinematography, there is the magnificently lush production design, created by Ferdinando Scarfiotti. The Fascist period in Italy was one of uniquely bold designs in terms of architecture, fashion and decor, and these modes are beautifully rendered: the beautiful costumes worn by Guilia and Anna, the lavish houses of the urban bourgeoisie, contrasting with the large, imposing, cold offices of the bureaucratic machine. There are cinematic echoes of Leni Riefenstahl, but also visual nods to earlier styles: the film draws to a close under the arches of the Colosseum – a symbol of the imperial past that Mussolini aspired to recreate. Bertolucci’s film is a visually-striking masterpiece not easily forgotten.