The Conformist
Stefania Sandrelli and Dominique Sanda in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 masterpiece The Conformist; trailer screenshot courtesy of Kino Lorber

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One of the many acute observations made by The Conformist is that an able-bodied man who refuses to dance at a party is likely to become a fascist. Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 masterpiece probes the soul of Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an Italian bureaucrat in 1930s Italy who willfully collaborates with Benito Mussolini’s government—not out of fear, greed, or genuine principle, but simply because he wants to fit in. He won’t dance because to dance is to risk looking foolish. We never see him laugh, and he rarely even smiles. Joy equals freedom, and he doesn’t want to be free. He’s too busy making sure he looks like everyone else.

Working from the 1951 novel by Alberto Moravia, Bertolucci uses all the tools of cinema to craft the most insightful film ever made about living under autocratic rule. A feast of color, theme, and character, The Conformist follows a crucial stretch in the life of an ordinary man who willfully gives himself over to evil. On the verge of getting married to Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), Marcello reaches out to the government and offers to spy on his former professor, an anti-fascist academic while on his upcoming honeymoon to Paris. Along the way, he is given new instructions: skip the surveillance and simply make an example out of him instead. Marcello is trailed by special agent Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) to ensure that he does the job to which he is assigned. Only when Marcello meets the professor (Enzo Tarascio)—who immediately suspects Marcello’s intent but accepts him into his home regardless—and falls in love with the professor’s wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda), does he falter in his certainty.

In lesser hands, The Conformist would be a first-rate political thriller, and while there are moments of tension, Bertolucci finds more drama in the thrills of human psychology. What makes a person susceptible to fascism? A desire to fit in is only the premise—and the title. Marcello states it plainly early in the film, admitting without shame that he doesn’t love his fiancee and that his marriage is only an attempt to make “an impression of normalcy.” Instead, Bertolucci probes the source of the desire to hide behind social norms. Marcello recalls a sexual experience with a priest at a young age that ended in violence, creating terror where there should be pleasure. He visits his morphine-addicted mother and institutionalized father, who in his scribblings writes of “slaughter and melancholy,” a juxtaposition that describes Marcello’s sad future. Note how the hospital where his father is confined is virtually indistinguishable from the building in which Marcello meets his government contacts, drawing a blurred line between madness and normalcy.

Dealing with a protagonist whose feelings are unknown even to himself can be tricky business, but Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro employ a gorgeously expressive palette to convey Marcello’s inner turmoil. When he is out in the terrifying public, the world is slate gray, with the government buildings matched to the perpetually overcast sky. The few little pops of color—like the yellow headlights of a car—are merciful gasps of air in a strangled world. Indoors, Marcello is confronted with rich creams and passionate reds, none of which particularly suit him, but hint at an unexpressed passion on the verge of release. There’s an intended sensuality bursting through the frame. Marcello is almost certainly queer, but the combination of his violent encounter with the priest and the state of terror inflicted upon Italy’s LGBTQ community (and beyond) at the time has led him to stifle anything resembling a carnal urge.

In perhaps the most spellbinding sequence, Marcello makes love to his fiancee in a train compartment, while she confesses in great detail to a previous affair with an older man. At first, she thinks it will make him reject her, but he’s into it. As the blazing orange sun of a coastal sunset bathes the train, he finds a safe space for his sexuality in narrative. He gropes her from behind, hiding himself behind her body. It’s a grace note for Marcello, and also a sign of his pathology: He must insert himself into another man’s story to feel comfortable expressing basic human desire.

That scene—and all of The Conformist—has never looked better than they do right now. Filmed in Technicolor and restored for this recent release in glorious 4K, each shot is a painting that offers a deeper inquiry into its themes, an expression of its anti-fascist politics, and ultimately a profound exploration of a single character’s universal need to fit in. Trintignant’s performance is the kind that often gets overlooked by awards bodies. Playing a character in emotional restraint requires you to hide the acting. But all is revealed in the film’s devastating final shot, which finds our man having robbed himself of any connection to a world outside his own fear. He glances back at a man who might be able to help him, if only for a moment, and also at us. Bathed in a murderous red tint, he begs to be seen and begs to be invisible, unable to resolve the contradiction. It’s a perfect shot that blends inspiration and craft to make a point whose salience remains frightfully urgent: Ours is a world where good people suffer, evil ones thrive, and those who bend with prevailing winds are the ones you really have to keep your eye on.

Newly restored, The Conformist opens at AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center on March 3. A special March 8 screening at 6:30 p.m. features an introduction from Montgomery College film professor David Rothma. $11–$13.