The Conformist

directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 18, 2017
Category: Drama

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My daughter’s summer reading
Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment

It was a week of lines. Moral lines. Where were they? Would they be honored? Or would it be smarter and safer to hang back, though you knew better, because nothing bad could happen to you if you didn’t take a moral position? These questions are at the heart of “The Conformist,” which is — this is both an artistic and moral opinion — a film that is required viewing for anyone who loves movies.

What kind of man gets himself in such a pickle that — on his honeymoon — he’s given a gun and asked to kill a professor he’s always admired?

That’s the question presented at the beginning of "The Conformist," as Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) sits in a Paris hotel room, waiting for the call that will tell him it’s time to kill the professor. If you love movies, the answer — told in a series of flashbacks, and, on occasion, flashbacks within flashbacks — will make for one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences of your life.

Let’s get the praise out of the way right off. Bernardo Bertolucci — known to most moviegoers for his Oscar-winning "The Last Emperor" and his down-and-dirty "Last Tango in Paris" — made "The Conformist" at 29. It is a young man’s film, drenched in ambition. It is also Bertolucci’s greatest film. Indeed, it is one of the ten greatest films I’ve ever seen. [To buy the DVD or stream the video on Amazon, click here.]

Here’s the preview, with a ridiculous overdubbed English voiceover.

"The Conformist" is beautiful in the extreme. The cinematographer was the great Vittorio Storaro, and his color palette is so exquisite that Francis Ford Coppola watched this film over and over before making "The Godfather" — and then hired Storaro to shoot "Apocalypse Now." The production designer was Ferdinando Scarfiotti, whose credits include "Death in Venice" and "Scarface." And Georges Delerue, who did the scores for "Jules and Jim" and “Platoon," composed the music.

Trintignant is one of the most familiar faces in French cinema; this is the performance of his life. But mostly, I want to praise Dominique Sanda, then just 22 years old and making only her third movie. She plays the professor’s wife, and she unfailingly strikes a remarkable balance — on one hand, she’s the loyal spouse, on another, she’s a bi-sexual flirt, and on yet a third, she’s the only character in the story who senses the tragedy that lies ahead.

The story is adapted from the novel by Alberto Moravia, one of Italy’s most seductive novelists. Sex is almost a character for Moravia, and it certainly is here — as the title suggests, Clerici’s greatest desire is to be normal, to be one of the faceless masses, to conform.

That’s not so easily done in Italy in 1936. Mussolini has brought down the Fascist boot; progressives have fled the country. So Clerici takes a rich, vapid wife. He makes his accommodation with the government. And with that — he thinks — he’s safe.

But there are no hiding places in life — and certainly not in a dictatorship of madmen. And then there is the question of the past: How do you acquire a "normal" life if you never had one before? As we flash back, we see that Clerici’s privileged childhood was anything but normal. His mother awoke at noon, looking for her first shot of the day. He was raised by nannies. And then there was the encounter with the chauffeur…

What Bertolucci is exploring here is the equation of politics with sex. In a film financed by an American studio, that equation would be explicit and vulgar. Here, every connection is made through imagery and suggestion. Your jaw will drop at scene after scene, but you’ll be on the edge of your seat during one in particular — an evening at a Parisian dance hall when Sanda dances with Clerici’s wife. It’s a breathtaking seduction, hotter in some ways than sex itself.

Why does Clerici freeze when he’s given a gun? Can he kill the professor? What happens to Sanda? And, jumping ahead, what does the Fascist’s defeat mean for Clerici? Bertolucci’s screenplay is brilliant on these key questions; you are always leaning in, thinking it through, putting the puzzle together. And, of course, you are invited to imagine — as we always do in great films — how would I handle this? What would I do if I were Clerici?

If you come to love "The Conformist", consider also The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, also starring Dominique Sanda, made a year later and exploring some of the same themes. Or you could read Alberto Moravia’s novel. But be warned: This is that rare case — a movie so much better than the book that reading it is a disappointment.


To buy the DVD of "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" from Amazon, click here.

To buy the novel of "The Conformist" from Amazon, click here.

Short Takes

Ken Locker photographs: Los Angeles eye-opener

seriously impressive photos…

Jeanne Moreau (1928-2017): My favorite quotes

“Every night I go over what I did in the day, in ethical or moral terms. Have I treated people properly? Did I tell the truth? But I’m not the sort of person who thinks, ‘Oh God, wasn’t it wonderful when I was 25.'”

“The cliche is that life is a mountain. You go up, reach the top and then go down. To me, life is going up until you are burned by flames. Life is an accomplishment, and each moment has a meaning and you must use it. Life is given to you like a flat piece of land and everything has to be done. I hope that when I am finished, my piece of land will be a beautiful garden, so there is a lot of work.”

“No, I don’t fall in love. I love differently. The word ‘fall’ is meaningless. Perhaps a ‘coup,’ to be hit by love, yes. But I’m more generous now. Passion is blind, and being blind you only see your own reflection in the eyes of others. Passion creates obstacles and pain that block what love is about. Love opens you up. It’s more generous, more fun. It’s less dark.”

How have you managed to keep most of your lovers as friends? How do you avoid the poison that can come at the end of a relationship?

Maybe it is because of the quality of the relationship, you know. I couldn’t explain that. There should be respect on both sides. There should be gratefulness. Maybe because the men and myself, we know that things don’t last. Life, you know? It’s marvelous to be able to travel for a while with somebody, when nothing ugly interferes.

To truly love someone, what do you think is required?

Well, just generosity. And gratitude. The worst enemy in love is to be possessive. To think that things ought to last. Usually, to begin with, it’s an attraction, it’s passionate, and it’s violently … there’s a sort of … everything gets all mixed up. Sex, and the heart, and the mind. It’s a painful period. If you resent the fact that it doesn’t last, you think the other one is responsible. That’s where it becomes ugly. But you know, if you have a certain knowledge … people say that one should speak to each other. No! People shouldn’t speak too much. Some people speak too much. Words can destroy things … beyond words, if you know what I mean. As long as you don’t feel that the other one is responsible, as long as you don’t feel guilty, you can keep the relationship. Love is like a flower blooming and then it fades. That doesn’t mean that you can’t keep the same roots.

You’ve said that you’d like to end your days in a big house with all the men you’ve ever loved. Who would be there?

Ah, maybe nowadays I wouldn’t do that. Nowadays I wouldn’t because I love to be alone. I love visitors.

A novel so good it needs no hype: “A Catalog of Birds”

Laura Harrington may have won the Kleban Award for most promising librettist in American Musical Theatre, but I know her only as a novelist. And I came to know her quite unwillingly. Would I read a novel about a girl in upstate New York whose father grows “the best corn and the best tomatoes in town?” No thanks. Her publicist persisted. A 14-year-old girl? A father in the National Guard whose unit is called up? Oh, and he goes to Iraq. I groaned. But the publicist really seemed to love “Alice Bliss.” And it was short. I let her send it.

There are books that manipulate you into tears, and then there are books that rip you apart, and you keep reading even though it hurts and your tears are raining — I mean that: raining — on the page. That was Alice Bliss for me. I’m not surprised that it won the Massachusetts Book Award in Fiction and will soon be staged as a musical.

In her just-published second novel, “A Catalog of Birds,” Harrington has taken on bio-chemical warfare and the poisoning of the innocent. She’s set her book in 1970, at the height of a war that damaged everyone it touched. Nell Flynn is a strong student, headed for college and a career in science. Her brother Billy is headed nowhere — he enlisted as a pilot, his helicopter is shot down in Vietnam, he’s the only survivor. He’d been a gifted artist, specializing in birds; now he can barely hold a pencil. The question that drives the book: Can Billy be healed? Can his life be saved?

As a writer, Laura Harrington’s instinct is to go directly to the broken places, the critical times, the glaring problems, the fraught relationships, and then to shine a light on them that is fresh and illuminating, and makes you glad you gave yourself over to her book. Because you’re not just reading a “family saga” here — you become a Flynn. Yes, it’s that good. To order the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the ebook, click here. To read an excerpt, click here.

Kriena Nederveen: stylist to the stars…and you

It happens all the time: Kriena Nederveen enters a room, and, for a second, time stops. It’s not just because she’s strikingly beautiful. It’s more because she’s so….stylish. Not, like, kitted out in this season’s trending outfit. Intelligently stylish. What you’d wear if a) you knew where to find these clothes and b) you knew how to put them together to create a “look.” Happily, after decades in the luxury fashion business and as a stylist to movie stars and musicians, she’s struck out on her own. Clé D’Or is a boutique that works 1-to-1 for women and men. Kriena can start by shopping in your closet and de-cluttering. And/or she can be your personal shopper, your beauty concierge, your go-to resource when you need a special gift. I’m sure she could even figure out who I might be if I dared to go beyond khakis and button-down Oxford shirts — but because I’m impossible, you move up in the line. Here’s the site. Here’s some praise. And here’s how to contact her: