Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The Conformist (Bertolucci, 1970)

Has the relationship between narrative and image ever been as consistently potent as it is in Bertolucci's The Conformist? An exuberantly sensual exercise in cinematic style, the film's every frame threatens to burst as a result of its creativity: the compositions, the plays on light and colour, the elegant gliding of the camera... all the visual elements of film coalesce to produce a work of art that's pictorially astonishing. And Bertolucci's style isn't merely hollow posturing, it IS his substance. Thus, the sequences of the film that take place in Italy are characterized by their acute angles, imposing interiors and sharp distinctions between light and shadow, all in order to underscore the restrictive claustrophobia of fascism. It follows that the Parisian segments are notable for their warmer hues, more extensive infiltration of light and external night sequences that are draped in a luminous shade of blue - a shade that seems curiously befitting for its protgaonist's internal concerns. In spite of these vague generalizations, the power behind Bertolucci's shotmaking derives from its lack of a consistent agenda - he's daring enough to stylize for the scene at hand, so the [Spoiler:] higher cutting rate that accompanies the Professor's murder (shot from a number of angles) is followed by the rapid movements of a handheld camera during Anna's death scene.

A non-linear, sequential narrative complements the director's stylistic audacity. Bertolucci uses a car journey that occurs prior to the aforementioned death scenes to reinforce the centrality of the film's primary concern - that being the extent to which lead character Marcello is willing to whore himself in order to become the conformist of the title. With fascism forming the film's socio-political backdrop (and dominating so much of the mise-en-scène) the implications of his attempts to extinguish the less desirable elements of his personality aren't lost on the viewer. Bertolucci's intercutting between past and present invites us to make a further analogy: namely, the link between sexual repression and political extremism. It's this invitation that's perhaps the film's only flaw, for it's both predictable and underdeveloped. Nevertheless, the quiet stoicism of Trintignant's performance thwarts this criticism to an extent, and the remainder isn't enough of a hindrance to even make a dent in the might of Bertolucci's cinematic construct. The film's poignant finale, which sets loose the secrets that our conformist was attempting to subjugate against the background of Italian Fascism's decline, is a solemn reminder of the effects of entrapping the free spirit.

The Conformist is so many things: a treatise on Italian (European?) history, an invigorating thriller, a fascinating character study... but really, the star of this show is the incomparable visual style (thank you, Vittorio Storaro you God.) So there's no other way to conclude (nor is there a more convincing argument for watching this film) than to allow some glimpses of Bertolucci's electrifying vision:

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