'The Conformist' Is a Political Thriller Washed in the Hues of a Thousand Psychosexual Dreams

Bernardo Bertolucci’s magnificent drama The Conformist bridges the supreme elegance of the jazz age with Euro mod-chic.

The Conformist (Il Conformista)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Distributor: Raro Video USA
Rated: R

A masterpiece of Italian cinema, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (Il Conformista) is now finally given a much-anticipated re-release on Raro Video, the label's latest offering of Italian classic films both rare and popular. The Conformist first debuted in 1970 and revolutionalized the political drama, favouring style and visual technique over action and content and signalling a fresh new talent in Bertolucci all over the world.

In fact, The Conformist was not the director’s first film. But it was his first film that truly struck hard and left a lasting impression, offering a unique and intriguing character study on one of the most enigmatic story figures in cinema, as well as giving other filmmakers a master class in the art of chiaroscuro. The director also managed to assemble one of the most alluring and glamorous cast of actors with Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli and Dominique Sanda, capturing each performer in a crucial moment of their career.

Indeed, the story is a rather confusing sequence of events dealing with the rise of fascism in Italy during Mussolini’s rule. French actor Trintignant (dubbed here in Italian) plays Marcello, a man making arrangements to carry out an assassination against a professor of his college days. Working covertly for the fascist sector, Marcello undergoes many upheavals in his personal life. He’s on the verge of marriage to his wealthy lover Guilia (Sandrelli), a capricious and naïve young woman unaware of her lover’s underground operations.

He is also fighting off personal demons from childhood; namely, a childhood sexual trauma that has left him emotionally disturbed and has since compromised his relationships with the women in his life (including his self-hating and indolent mother). This trauma in particular has serious consequences on his political assignments, obscuring and superseding the fascist ideal behind the criminal acts. As time wears on and he finally meets up with his former professor and his professor’s beautiful wife (Sanda), Marcello soon begins to psychologically unravel, unable to keep the childhood demons at bay.

If it sounds like a heavy and disturbing psych-trip... well, it is. But Bertolucci always manages a beautiful distraction by way of visual design. His perfectly framed shots and bold colour schemes, which richly infuse the drama with sunrise oranges and haunted blues, are so visually arresting and lavish that Marcello’s deep seated bemusements almost seem like an afterthought. Tangled in the mess of emotion and political intrigue are three phenomenal performers who skillfully dance about the drama onscreen as though fascism and its embattling opposition were mere movements in art. Trintignant, a fashionable hitman decked out in double-breasted pinstriped suits and fedoras, retains the moody air of a quietly disturbed man. His occasional outbursts reveal the splintering cracks in his mental health, signalling an inevitable self-destruction.

Sanda especially impresses as Anna, the sullen, moody and sensuous wife of Marcello’s target. Sanda, an actress whose shy, understated eroticism and nuanced application of emotion has often been sorely and lamentably overlooked, gives Anna a subtle reading of both menace and coquettish innocence. Her scenes with Sandrelli are particularly unnerving; she seduces with the implied threat of sex and death as playfully as she skirts the political danger zones that both her husband and Marcello are enmeshed in. Her harrowing death scene goes down in cinema history as one of the most frightful displays of pitiless misanthrope and bloodied elegance.

Raro Video’s Blu-ray release of The Conformist presents the film with the justice it has been far too long denied; the gorgeous Art Deco-inspired sets and panoramic shots are faithfully and fully replicated here on disc just as they were meant to be seen. Raro Video has also managed to perfect the balance in colours; there is plenty of colour-saturation but no unnecessary bleeding of colour. Rather, the bold, lush and radiant colours of red, blue, orange and yellow remain crisp and clear and never simply look like filters; they glow and emanate from the screen as though the characters’ world is indeed infused with the flush of unearthly colour.

Skin tones have also been tended to with care. A previous DVD release by Paramount revealed a significant shadowing of the flesh, which rendered the actor’s expressions in far away shots a little soft and blurry. Here, this is no longer a problem. A film this beautiful-looking demands utmost attention to the finer details and for this Blu-ray, Raro Video delivers admirably.

Sound restoration is also exceptional. Georges Delerue’s music pours through richly and with ease, no distortion to be heard. Dialogue come through clearly on the both the English and Italian language tracks. In regards to languages and dubbing, The Conformist is what’s known as a “Euro-pudding”. A “Euro-pudding” is a film that was typical of ‘60s and ‘70s European films that were multinational productions featuring talents and money coming from various regions of Europe. The Conformist is an Italian-French production, with much of the film shot in Italy and featuring a mainly Italian cast and crew. The French contribution is on Sanda’s and Trintignant’s end.

Like most Euro-puddings, every actor would speak his or her dialogue in his or her own native tongue. So, if Sandrelli is Italian (which she is), she would speak her lines in Italian. Sanda, who is French, would respond in French (naturally!). Later, the actors not speaking the principal language in the film (in this case, Italian) would be dubbed in that principal language. So almost never in a Euro-pudding would you hear everybody’s real speaking voice. If the dubbing was not done especially well, it could seriously hamper the performances of the actors involved. Happily, this is not the issue with The Conformist, as the Italian dubbing has been done exceptionally well (though do skip the English dub, which is terrible). The one caveat here, however, is that Sanda’s natural voice cannot be heard as a result. In fact, on the Paramount DVD release of a few years back, a French-language track was offered in addition to the Italian and English dubs and, indeed, Sanda’s voice can be heard, speaking her native French. It may not have been such a big deal for Raro Video to not include the French-language track, if Sanda’s voice wasn’t possibly the most distinguishing feature about her. In fact, Sanda’s voice (a lungfully deep and sensuous purr) is so distinctive, that director Robert Bresson reportedly cast the actress in his film, Une Femme Douce (her debut), on hearing her voice alone. The actress who dubs Sanda’s voice does a remarkable job, however, catching all the subtleties and nuances of the performance - so no harm done. It’s a forgivable omission.

Extras include an in-depth discussion with Bertolucci about the making of the film and its significance over the years. He talks about the moody and enigmatic Trintignant, whose persona has always been a cool and careful balance between the unassuming nature of a Regular Joe and an impenetrable, inner mystique.

No other film has captured the brewing tensions and drama of political intrigue with the kind of visual flair here on display. The Conformist is a truly inspired treatment that bridges the supreme elegance of the jazz age and Euro mod-chic with the dark-hearted atmospheres of film noir. This isn’t your typical meat and potatoes espionage thriller. This is cinematic decadence washed in the hues of a thousand psychosexual dreams.

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