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November 25, 2014

The Conformist


Il Conformista
Bernardo Bertolucci - 1970
Raro Video BD Region A

Is it possible that I saw a slightly different version of The Conformist back in March 1971, prior to its New York City opening? I am certain that there were scenes of Pierre Clementi not simply describing his "Madame Butterfly" robe, but wearing it onscreen. Maybe I imagined Clementi's description so vividly that I've been certain for all these years, decades really, that the two scenes of Lino, the chauffeur, have him wearing the very feminine robe.

One shot that there is no question about is of Marcello, the title character, going to an official fascist government office, a huge, empty space. A large bust of Mussulini's head and a statue of an eagle pass each other across the frame. There was something surreal about that shot that has stayed with me.

There is also the low angle full shot of Marcello and his mother, shot from the ground tilting upwards, Marcello helping his mother into a car, the ground covered with golden brown leaves blowing. It is a shot that takes my breath away. I'm not the only one who has responded to that specific shot as it is briefly discussed in the supplement that looks at the history of the making of The Conformist.

And then there is the scene of Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli dancing together, what I like to refer to as the "First Tango in Paris". I was nineteen when I saw The Conformist for the first time, and that dance scene was, for me, one of the the most erotic things I had ever seen.

That one scene with Jean-Louis Trintignant walking along the sidewalk with the tilted angles? It wasn't until much later that I understood that this visual bit was taken from The Third Man, a film that featured Alida Valli, who appeared in Bertolucci's previous film, The Spider's Stratagem.

I can't be the only one who thinks that the scene of the killing of the professor not only is evocative of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, but Orson Welles' modern dress stage production, with its black shirted Romans, from 1937, a year before the main narrative of The Conformist takes place?

The other most famous film adapted from a novel by Alberto Moravia is Godard's Contempt. I read the novel, A Ghost at Noon as well as Moravia's novel which provided the basis for Bertolucci's film. Trust me on this: both films are better than the novels. Which brings me to both films have Georges Delerue providing the music. Both scores convey the sense of romantic yearning, although there is also a musical theme usually played in association with the fascist agent who keeps tabs on Marcello, a theme that owes something to Kurt Weill in his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht. There is also a little joke in the film with the announcement of dance music composed by "Maestro Delelrue". There is also the revelation that Bertolucci had originally approached Contempt star Brigitte Bardot for the part taken by Dominique Sanda.

The Conformist was not my introduction to Bertolucci. I had seen Before the Revolution thanks to the recommendation of a fellow film student. What seemed revelatory at the time has, in retrospect, also been a work that indicated some of what was to follow, especially Last Tango in Paris and 1900. Much of the imagery still remains powerful more than forty years later.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 25, 2014 07:06 AM