Bernardo Bertolucci's 1970 triumph Il conformista (The Conformist) is ill-described as a "political drama." While the antihero Marcello's role as spy/assassin for Mussolini's fascist government motivates the plot, that plot is by far the least important aspect of the film. Instead its paramount feature is cinematography, followed closely by the character study of the truly baffling personal history and desire for (the appearance of) normalcy that make up Marcello Clerici. An incomplete man who knows his desires but not himself, Jean-Louis Trintignant's Marcello ultimately makes us wonder whether his threatening colleague Manganiello is not his sometime enemy but a creation of Marcello's divided mind, a reflection of his hollow and changeable morals (he is, after all, the conformist).
The noted cinematographic inspiration for The Godfather Part II and surely an unrecognized inspiration for many films of the 70's, Il conformista bears the hallmark of Italian cinema in favoring the symbolic visual language of setting and light over a linear narrative based in plot and action. Windows abound, obscured by colored glass or shutters, looking out on the roofs of Rome and the ankles of women passing by. Dark stone interiors chill a conspicuously empty government office building whose mile-high ceilings remind us how unjustly exalted the fascist cause once was; a similarly angular marble platform sets the stage for a Clerici family reunion where humanity is neither shared nor even acknowledged. The film begins and ends with rhythmic and obfuscating lighting constructs, the first being a red light flashing on Marcello through shaded hotel windows and the last, the white lights of the anti-fascist revolution that approach, then abandon him, shining between columns in the street. These scenes highlight a visual trend in the film: Shots that let us know Marcello is physically there, but not who he is or what his presence amounts to. And then there are shots when he simply is not there. I'm not sure what his absence amounts to in the scene where Manganiello directs a speech at Marcello, who is clearly nowhere in the area.
There is an untouchable enigma behind the striking visuals in this film, a mysteriousness of purpose that lifts all burden of explanation off the dialogue without offering us meaning we may interpret to any specific end. We are not preoccupied with trying to figure out the conformist or Il conformista; instead, we are overwhelmed by uneasy atmospheres, surreal camera angles, by the unexpected outbursts of eroticism mixed with such innocent desperation to take care of someone or to be taken care of. As if Marcello and his every surrounding bypassed our conscious mind, the film elicits not thought but emotion, visually and so quietly. The world it shows us makes us feel--feel what, we may not be sure--so acutely just by setting a recognizable world slightly off kilter, whether with canted framing or blind revelers, sunlight blazing between leafless trees or litters of puppies nuzzling the morphine-addled Clerici matriarch.
Two big screen viewings have not begun to tell me what exactly I should make of these visceral feelings or the film that elicits them, and I would rather not see past the enigma--it's too beautiful to look at.
~ Natasha Hirschfeld