Knee jerk

The Conformist

Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor) and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) became international figures following the release of 1970’s visual feast The Conformist, which last week finally arrived on DVD.

French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Marcello, a man wounded by fear and shame and desperate to fit in with the crowd in fascist-era Italy. Marcello still carries the emotional scars from a childhood incident involving homosexuality and murder, and finds himself drawn to the shadowy witch-hunt ethos of fascism in order to hide his own secrets.

The film opens as Marcello drives to complete an unspecified mission, which inspires wide-ranging memories (Bertolucci credits editor Franco Arcalli for the film’s nonlinear structure) of the insipid wife he married to create “the impression of normalcy,” of his lunatic father, and of the eager betrayals he made in order to protect himself.

Not every viewer will be compelled by The Conformist—the weight of its symbolism can be crushing at times—but no one can deny the immense visual pleasure on display in nearly every frame. Storaro creates a visual cage around Marcello with “no harmony between light and shadows”; the film has the geometric design of an Expressionist silent, with the pulsating color palette of a Technicolor spectacle, even though only one scene was shot inside a studio.

The Conformist isn’t Bertolucci’s best picture; it lacked a certain level of emotional involvement that he would achieve two years later with Last Tango in Paris. Yet the film retains a poignant relevance to our times, especially with the preponderance of closeted gay Republicans and church leaders who have aggressively pushed an anti-gay agenda.

Also making its DVD debut last week was the original five-hour-plus version of 1900, another Bertolucci/Storaro collaboration starring Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu.