Written and directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, The Conformist is the story of a weak-willed fascist spy (Jean-Louis Trintignant) obsessed with normality and desperate to belong.
The only other Bertolucci film I’ve seen is Last Tango in Paris, and this is a much more interesting and substantial piece of work. It’s at once a political drama, a character study and an art film, boasting gorgeous cinematography and production design. Bertolucci’s use of expansive yet empty fascistic spaces, clean compositions and slanted camera angles creates a sort of expressionist dreamscape.
Released in 1970, this Italian classic has been cited as an influence on Francis Ford Coppola – particularly the non-linear narrative structure that defines The Godfather Part II. The protagonist’s past unfolds in flashback, parallel to his story moving forward in the present. A confession scene reveals that as a child he shot a man for making sexual advances, only for the priest to be more concerned by the homosexuality than the murder. This is a film of sharp political commentary and often savage wit.
The Conformist looks like a dream and plays out like an arthouse espionage thriller. It cracks along apace but unlike its blind character (José Quaglio), it never loses sight of the political warning signs: that fascism is conformity and conformity is cowardice. Come for the Italian suits and beautiful women; stay for the enduring critique of fascism.
Bold and beautiful, expressionistic and erotic, The Conformist is an illuminating film about fascism and those it seduces. Certain members of the government and the media would do well to heed its warnings.