Friday, February 27, 2015

The Conformist (Il Conformista)




Dominique Sanda on the set of The Conformist (1970) with director Bernardo Bertolucci




THE CONFORMIST (Il Conformista)             A                    
Italy  France  Germany  (107 mi)  1970  d:  Bernardo Bertolucci           
restored in 1995 to (111 mi)

A marriage of direction and cinematography, this is one of the more sumptuously beautiful films in all of cinema, an extraordinarily stylized mix of sexualization and politics that become fused in a cinematic explosion, a candidate for one of the greatest films ever made, perhaps the singlemost influential movie of our times, without which we would not have Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), with the director insisting upon the same cinematographer after having seen this film, or THE GODFATHER (1971, 1974, 1990) saga, which utilizes the same luxurious richness of color along with similar attention to costumes and art design.  Along the lines of CITIZEN KANE (1941), Bertolucci’s film is a monumental collaboration of artistic expression on a grand scale, utilizing the breathtaking photography of Vittorio Storaro, the exquisite elegance of art director Ferdinando Scarfiotti, and the sublime 1930’s-era French costume designs by Gitt Magrini, not to mention a musical score from Georges Delerue.  One of the memorable central scenes of the film was even recreated in a Soprano’s (1999 – 2007) third season episode entitled Pine Barrens directed by Steve Buscemi.  Adapting a 1947 novel by Italian writer Albert Moravia, who also wrote the novel that inspired Godard’s CONTEMPT (1963), the author is known for his psychological realism and open treatment of sexuality that reflect the anxieties of contemporary times.  Moravia’s novel was inspired by the 1937 assassination of two of his cousins in Paris who had been working for the French resistance movement.  Opening in 1938 in Rome, the story concerns a central protagonist Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who identifies with the prevailing political group in power and tries to normalize himself behind a mask of fascist aristocracy, who is petrified at the idea he is a homosexual, making him feel different, like he has something to hide from the world.  While the reasons aren’t initially clear, we learn through flashbacks that he’s been traumatized by a childhood incident where he was sexually abused by a family chauffeur, Pasqualino “Lino” Seminara, Pierre Clémenti from BELLE DE JOUR (1967), where Clerici accidentally shot him with his own gun, continually thinking of himself afterwards as a killer and an assassin. 

The restless inner workings underneath the narrative continually altering the time structure hold an essential key to understanding what is a remarkable character study.  Tormented by memories of his childhood, history intrudes into Clerici’s real life, where the often repressed subconscious rises out of its hibernation with a powerful impact.  While the actual structure of the film may not have been determined until the editing room, Bertolucci adopts a complicated flashback technique, constantly shifting backwards and forwards in time, reflecting Clerici’s anxiety-ridden state of mind, as the director’s love for extended sequences are constantly interrupted by informative childhood flashback sequences that comment upon the present, where his family life was also marked by equally decadent and mentally unstable parents.  These experiences have left him feeling uneasy and uncomfortable in his own skin, where Clerici’s response to his clearly dysfunctional childhood is to hide from it by acting as normal as possible.  To this end, Clerici embraces Italian fascism and joins the Secret Service, where to be a conformist is to be a fascist.  It is not enough, however to join the ranks of the organization, as instead his role is to seek out anti-fascists, where he is assigned the job to assassinate his former teacher, leftist Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), who has fled to Paris in exile where his powerful voice constantly railing against Mussolini must be silenced.  In contrast to the claustrophobic look of Italy, Paris is expressed as the city of freedom and openness, a veritable fashion center of the world suddenly bursting with a surreal use of color, an altered sense of reality, perfectly represented by the professor’s wife, Dominique Sanda as Anna, the French wife of an intellectual with lesbian tendencies, who represents glamor and beauty, everything Clerici refuses to be, as she is the exact opposite of the wife he chooses.  Stefania Sandrelli is Giulia, equally beautiful but a thoughtless, conventional-minded woman who avoids asking questions about his career, the most perfectly content middle class wife for Clerici who craves a traditional marriage, one whose entire background is grounded in family, church, position, and moral values.  Clerici uses his own honeymoon in Paris as the time and place to carry out his assignment, where the newlyweds take a train ride to Paris with the sunlight bursting through the window, accompanied by fellow Italian agent Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) who follows his every move throughout, handing him a gun with a silencer at the Italian-French border.     

Trintignant is such a perfect choice, immersing himself in the role, as he’s an actor who specializes in being an everyman who can pass through the streets unnoticed, yet exudes intelligence, remaining quietly thoughtful and reflective.  As Clerici he’s something of a ghost of a human being, carrying around his hidden secrets inside him that churn around in his anxious and unsettled frame of mind, like his secret attraction to Anna, who is introduced earlier in brief sequences, once in the fascist ministry and again in an Italian brothel, where she exists almost as a fantasy, an ideal woman who exists in a mystery.  Bertolucci’s recreation of Paris in the 30’s shows his love for such a grand period of cinema, reflected in the sensuality of the women’s costumes and their indulgence into Parisian glamor, where not everything is seen in a conscious way, but the continual brilliance of the atmospheric mood intercedes into reality.  In this vein, one of the strangest scenes in the film is Clerici’s Italian wedding party, called the “dance of the blind” sequence, which was initially cut in the Italian release, but was actually shot in an underground basement location where you can see the feet of people walking by through the street-level windows, a graphic representation of the subconscious.  In addition, it includes a large group of blind people in sunglasses, friends of Italo (José Quaglio), Clerici’s blind friend, a fascist that runs a radio station, a reflection of the blind populace that voted for Mussolini, yet the banquet scene is shot in an exotic party atmosphere with streamers and different colored hanging Chinese lanterns.  Clerici visits his parents before he leaves for Paris, where his mother is a morphine addict living in a decaying villa surrounded by unswept leaves blowing in the wind while his father is confined to an insane asylum, shown in an outdoor scene at the Palazzo dei Congressi, originally constructed for the 1942 world’s fair, but cancelled due to Italy’s involvement in the war.  Bertolucci utilizes the surviving architecture and décor of the period, where this EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma) district in Rome is a remnant of the architectural dream of Mussolini, as it was built to celebrate twenty years of fascism. 

Armond White from The New York Press, Before The Devolution | Manhattan, New York ... - NY Press      

Three geniuses teamed up to create The Conformist: director Bernardo Bertolucci, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti. Their 1970 collaboration was as momentous as the work of Welles & company on Citizen Kane, showing a new generation how to look at movies. This was quite a feat after the many high-art film innovations of the 50s and 60s. BSS synthesized it all—playing with edited time, color, space, form—and then upped the stakes: taking modern cinema back to the arch romanticism of the silent era. In 1970 no one had ever seen a color movie that was as much a visual phenomenon. And it’s still a knock-out. This week’s rerelease at Film Forum proves that The Conformist has been the single most influential movie of the past 35 years.

It came before the de-volution. Bertolucci, Storaro and Scarfiotti worked with the belief (now gradually eroding in the digitial-video age) that cinema was, foremost, a visual art form; that its richest meanings and distinctive impact were the result of images. Images designed to amaze, ideas expressed through illustration, emotion conveyed through the tonalities of light. All that is now taken for granted through today’s barbaric video practices where indie films look like home movies. Watching The Conformist is, more than ever, like being a starving man widening his eyes at a king’s feast. The mist-shrouded view of the Eiffel Tower, the stroboscopic train ride, the high-contrast scenes in a radio studio and many other memorable sequences reawaken one’s senses. You seem to taste “cinema” for the first time.

By the time Clerici contacts the professor in Paris, cineastes will appreciate that the professor’s address and phone number actually belonged to none other than French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard.  While he’s immediately attracted to the professor’s wife, she’s more interested in spending time with Giulia, seen pampering her on a Parisian shopping spree throughout the afternoon while Clerici has his private meeting with the professor, reminding him of his college thesis on the myth of Plato’s cave (Allegory of the Cave), shifting the light in the room, becoming a standing shadow himself, beautifully visualizing a metaphor while commenting on the illusions of politics and sexual desire.  In the myth, enchained prisoners see reflections of themselves on the walls of a cave illuminated by a burning fire, mistaking their shadows for reality.  It’s a unique separation of light and darkness, between the divine and a human being, where light is a form of consciousness, while darkness reveals the unknown, something that must remain hidden.  Clerici’s privately repressed lust for Anna is revealed through peep-hole sequences, where he’s seen spying on her in various states of undress, where both she and the professor are aware of Clerici’s fascist sympathies and the danger he represents, where Anna’s pursuit of Giulia may largely be for the benefit of Clerici’s roving male eyes.  Both women dress extravagantly for an evening dinner and dance engagement, where the virtuosity of Bertolucci’s gliding camera style is especially evident in the operatic dance sequence bathed in a sensuous texture as the two women are entwined in a feverish, erotically charged dance that unleashes itself in an orgiastic frenzy.  This leads to a scene in the snowy woods the following day, exhibiting some of the most exquisite use of light and shadow in a motion picture, where the assassination attempt is eloquently photographed as cinematic art — glorious, powerful, and dramatically effective.  With sunlight streaming through the trees, the set-up itself is breathtaking to behold, where time literally stops when the optimum moment is at hand.  In the lingering stillness, the psychological intrigue accelerates through the agitated inner workings of the killer’s mind, with the viewer wondering where his sympathies lie, but the seemingly peaceful calm is broken by the decisive brutality of the events, turning into one of the more stunning scenes of the film. 

While the entire film is shot in a dizzying array of crisscrossing angles that parallel the freely moving flashback technique, it’s a fairly simplistic story told in a beguilingly complex manner, delving into all manner of Freudian psychosexual issues concerning a confused and cowardly man who has for years tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, vowing to “build a normal life” for himself, yet his very soul hinges on the thought of sexual panic.  The extreme aesthetic, with an elaborate color scheme, exotic use of light, and the grandeur of nature on display seem to taunt Clerici’s narrowly skewed interests, where the moral turmoil of his political and sexual confusion eventually become overwhelming, especially as time jumps ahead to the fascist defeat, which completely undercuts his fabricated life and everything he’s stood for, exposing his failures, along with others like him whose unquestioned following of a brutal regime allowed fascism to flourish.  In the aftermath of Mussolini’s death, when he suddenly sees the man on the street that he thought he had killed earlier in his life, Lino the chauffeur, still alive and trying to seduce another young man, he becomes unhinged, as if he has an internal explosion, publicly denouncing all his former friends as traitors, homosexuals, and murderous accomplices.  While the film is an indictment of hypocrisy and fascism, not to mention conformism as a means of finding a safe haven, it is also a tragic psychosexual descent into utter futility, as all his life Clerici’s constant desire to sacrifice his values and surround himself in a normal life of anonymity was based on the idea that he was different, that he was molested and abused, little more than damaged goods in an otherwise decent and moral society.  Liberation has always been conformity’s constant enemy, and now suddenly he finds himself alone in a world that makes no sense, where he’s a stranger literally to himself, unaccepted by the new prevailing order, refusing to identify with the collaborating enemy within, shaking his feeble, weak-willed spirit to the core, where his biggest fear rises to the surface and once again looms mysteriously over his life, powerless to turn away, lost in an ambiguous fog of illusion, paralyzed, helpless and impotent.  

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