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‘The Conformist’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 25, 1994

In 1972, most of the world was shocked by the challenging, irreverent genius of "Last Tango in Paris," but those who were familiar with Bernardo Bertolucci's previous work found it not so much a revelation as a happy fulfillment of his early promise.

Two years before "Last Tango," the man who would later call Hollywood "The Big Nipple" wrote and directed "The Conformist." I've seen it probably 20 times over the years, and even if it weren't in pristine shape for its current re-release, it would still qualify as one of only a handful of films made in the past 30 years that truly deserve to be called great.

Based on the novel by Alberto Moravia, the movie follows the quest for bourgeois normalcy by a member of the Italian Fascist Party during World War II. The lead character, Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant), is an upper-class intellectual who has felt painfully isolated from his fellow man. Where other men see the connections between themselves and the rest of the world, Marcello sees only the divisions, the ways in which he stands apart.

This uniqueness, he believes, is the result of a childhood incident in which he shot the family chauffeur while the man was attempting to molest him. Marcello also reviles the decadence of his parents' generation, which left his father insane and his mother a dope addict. The cure is a rigorous dedication to the average. When he looks at Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), the luscious airhead he has chosen to marry, he sees the epitome of mediocrity. Following his marriage, Marcello wants to gain formal admittance into the leadership ranks of the party, and to prove his worthiness he agrees to travel to Paris to murder one of the leaders of the resistance.

The reason Marcello is chosen for the job is that the leader is a professor who once taught him. Visiting his former mentor in his apartment, Marcello remembers his professor's voice as they discussed Plato's cave, and for Bertolucci the allusion to the philosopher is not casually dropped. From the earliest days of Bertolucci's career, the poet turned filmmaker had been interested in the nature of reality. In "Last Tango," he pursued the question through two characters who attempted to get to the bottom of man's nature by reducing themselves to the sum of their appetites. In "The Last Emperor," man was defined by politics; in "Little Buddha," by the soul.

In "The Conformist," Bertolucci attempts to understand totalitarianism as a symptom of Marcello's impulse to belong, to be like everyone else. And the atmosphere of the film is anything but prosaic. Using tinted images and skewed angles and a fluid, romantic style, Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro create an orgy of competing patterns and textures. Visually, the movie combines the impending spareness of de Chirico with the stylish geometry of film noir and the colorful opulence of Visconti.

The result is a sort of haunted surreality in which sex, Freud, politics and philosophy are flung together in a spirit of aesthetic exuberance and daring. The performances are almost as stylized as the production design, with Trintignant's crisp, angular moves providing counterpoint to the slinky voluptuousness of Sandrelli and Dominique Sanda. The movie isn't without flaws. Its ideas aren't all fully baked, especially the connections between sexual deviance and repressive politics. Still, almost nothing has been lost over the years. The brilliant mix of ideas, the audacity and originality of approach, the sensualist delight in the ravishing play of light and shadow -- all these remain, as bracing and inspirational as ever.

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