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Speak, Memory

Photo Courtesy Paramount PicturesWhen it opened, in 1970, The Conformist was revolutionary: A thriller and a love story; a noir in passionate color; and an autopsy on Italy in its self-ordained demise, from around 1920 to 1943. Did it help to know Italian history? Of course; but any country could be the background, for this film asserted that private and public politics were one. And so, when Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) advanced on an assassination attempt, a putative seduction or merely a sly backtrack to pick up his forgotten hat (that lid on his being), all purposes coexisted in his scuttling motion — he moves as Gregor Samsa might move, and decades later, it is the creepiness in Trintignant that owns the film. Here was proof that cinema was ready to come of age, to be worthy not just of Alberto Moravia’s novel, but of any novel. After the giddy abruptness and fragmentation of the French New Wave (which had been film school for director Bernardo Bertolucci), The Conformist reverted to a stylistic sophistication and smoothness remembered from the 1930s — a sinuousness with light, clothes and décor that brought back memories of Ophuls, von Sternberg and even Mitchell Leisen. But The Conformist was set in the ’30s, it was perfectly natural for the movie to use reflections, separating walls and depth of focus.Then there was the fruitful integration of so much artistry in the film’s very pronounced look — not just Bertolucci’s narrative arcs, but Vittorio Storaro as lighting cameraman and Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s production design. This brilliant unification of resources had an immense impact on Coppola, Scorsese and Paul Schrader; it is the source of the real moral stratification in The Godfather. In time, Storaro and Scarfiotti did work in America, and there’s no doubt that the look and feel of The Conformist — and its faith in the emotional content of imagery — were vital inspirations.It was Bertolucci’s wish to match Godard, I think, that made the structure of The Conformist so ostentatiously difficult but absorbing. In later films, Bertolucci gave up on cross-cutting and the obliqueness of omission — he became a much more conventional storyteller. And The Conformist still works best in the motif of delayed or evaded pursuit that is built around actor Gaston Moschin’s assassin (he reappeared in The Godfather Part II, strolling toward doom), the sinister black car and the stealthy waltz in Georges Delerue’s music. (Indeed, Delerue shows many signs of wanting to bind the film’s broken structure back together again). So the car trip could be the trigger for every flashback. But as it is, the incidents are scattered and the film becomes obsessively obscure. There’s another problem: The conflation of fascism and Clerici’s gayness now seem glib and naive, and a part of Bertolucci’s urge to see sex in everything. That mood works very well in terms of the wife, flirty and mediocre and beautifully played by Stefania Sandrelli. But Dominique Sanda’s wife/lover/whore/lesbian is too tricky and infinite. She is a dream figure, like Lee Miller in Man Ray’s solarized photography.Never mind. The Conformist is a great film, drunkenly beautiful and deeply disturbing. That last furtive look from Trintignant, over his shoulder, goes into the past and the future simultaneously and speaks volumes on his dread desire not to be noticed. For this is a man who has betrayed not just love and liberty, but his own identity, out of the fearsome need to be respected by a decadent code of order. It is novel enough to have a weakling and a scoundrel as our protagonist, but it is uplifting for an entire movie to place him as the spider/beetle in a web of complex political consequences. Our own past is here: Not just great cinema, but the chance of politics, too! THE CONFORMIST | Written and directed by BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI, based on the novel by ALBERTO MORAVIA | Produced by MAURIZIO LODI-FE | Released by Paramount Pictures | At the Nuart


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