The Italian classic
should be seen on the big screen. The film's vivid colors and lavish set pieces are meant to be absorbed in the all-encompassing medium of a darkened theater. Thankfully, the International House is showing Bernardo Bertolucci's surrealistic spy movie as part of its series of hallowed Italian movies.
The 1970 movie takes place mostly during the height of Mussolini's empire and follows the scion of an aristocratic family, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who is striving to fit in with the ascendant order. His ambitions are complicated, and caused, by his father's madness, his mother's morphine addiction, and his own complex sexuality and the murder he committed as a result of his confusion.
Marcello believes he can calm his roiling psyche by becoming an ideal fascist foot soldier. To prove his bona fides, he eagerly accepts an assignment to find and kill his exiled liberal college professor while honeymooning in Paris with his aggressively bourgeois wife (Stefania Sandrelli). The story is told in a nonlinear fashion, jumping from the fateful mission to Marcello's childhood to his recruitment by the secret police.
Some of the scenes have taken on iconic status, especially the spectacularly shot dance scene that emphasizes Marcello's essential loneliness while sweeping the audience up in the giddy joy of the act. It's all you can do not to grab a glass of champagne and join in. Big-name American filmmakers clearly felt the same way, with Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese acknowledging The Conformist's influence on their work. (One ground-level shot of autumnal leaves blowing about on Marcello's decayed estate is echoed in The Godfather Part II.)
The Conformist is an extraordinarily complex movie, but not to the point of obscurity. There are allusions to Plato's famed cave that would take a dissertation to game out, with plenty of material left over for a follow-up thesis on Bertolucci's use of the film as a Marxian critique of politicized filmmaking. But the filmgoer doesn't need to suss out the complexities to enjoy the movie. It's also just a sumptuously presented 1970s thriller freighted with a dread similar to its blunter American counterparts', like the Parallax View. Every movie lover should see it in its big-screen glory.