Bernardo Bertolucci has always been one of the scant few directors to actually understand the art of eroticism. There's an irrepressible elegance in the way he films women and the way they look when they're just existing or preparing for a tryst with a lover. His early films have a way of stressing those flippant eyebrows and coy smiles over the quick glimpse of the nipple or (god forbid) full breasts. The lilting gasps and moans of lovers preparing and engaging in their blissfulness is a nervy symphony for his acutely shot images. Even now, 36 years after his best film and three years after his amicable The Dreamers, Bertolucci's films seem to careen with seduction in ways that no other filmmaker can possibly recreate. Though best known for Last Tango in Paris, The Conformist still holds as Bertolucci's most provocative work and a classic of Italian New Wave.
Marcello (the great Jean-Louis Trintignant) has a common yearning in his life, though he puts it much more bluntly than others would. Marcello wants to be normal. Normal as in Fascist, normal as in wife, children and government job, and, finally, normal in that he represses and attempts to forget all his dark dreams and past deeds. The charge from his hushed organization is to assassinate his old philosophy professor (Enzo Tarascio) in France while on a fake honeymoon with his "petty" wife, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli, playing the part with a marvelous mixture of oblivious commitment and hollowed sexiness). While on assignment, he flirts and sneaks to hidden corners with the Anna (Dominique Sanda), the professor's volatile, anti-Fascist wife, and attempts to keep his agency contact (Gastone Moschin) happy.
Bertolucci, only 29 at the time, commands the screen with a series of stylistic and technical haymakers. The timeline gets chopped up and scattered as if it were being prepared on Iron Chef, returning intermittently to Marcello's solemn façade as he gets driven through a snowy back road by his contact. Though the car ride is all melancholic gray, the rest of the film tilts at the spectrum. Most notable is the use of blue when Anna begs for her husband's life, right before going shopping with Giulia. It gives the night time setting an alien glow of nostalgia and (let's just say it) an irrevocably cool look.
Fundamentally, Bertolucci attacks the ideologies of the Fascists by embracing a cool, rupturing anti-hero in Marcello. His ultimately indefinable hatred for feeling and public love is expected, but it's the way that Bertolucci punctuates this with a series of perversities and devious acts that turns Marcello into a classic construction of complexity. The one time we see him wanting to openly have sex with his wife is when she tells him of a six-year, obviously detrimental affair she had with a 60-year-old family friend, in a train no less. Even more striking is the confessional scene, where Marcello openly (in front of Giulia) tells a priest about a sexual molestation and subsequent murder he was involved with as a child, and then talking of his need for "petty" things and a "normal" life. The point of the chat with the priest is that sin is no longer a surprise in the modern man, only the time it takes him to confess the acts and start racking up points again. Since he never made another film that even came close to The Conformist, the assumption would be that Bertolucci is in desperate need of some time with a man of the cloth.
The new extended edition DVD includes several making-of featurettes.
Aka Il Conformista.