CJ Probst’s review published on Letterboxd:
Now this is what a beautiful film looks like. As I have been slightly underwhelmed by some of the early cinema I watched for Film School Dropouts, I got from The Conformist that irresistible, nostalgic magnetic pull that I had been seeking because it was so beautiful I just wanted to jump through the screen. Whether it is the period Italian fashions, the old cars or the chic interiors enhanced by some otherworldly cinematography, the entire film felt like a cool breeze flowing in on a warm day or that perfectly brisk weather that comes immediately before a rain. So refreshing and invigorating.
It’s a socio-political noir by the Italian master Bernardo Bertolucci and follows Dottore, a young employee of the fascist government tasked to assassinate his former acquaintance and notorious outspoken anti-fascist professor. Told in a series of flashbacks, we get a sense of what makes up the titular character, a chameleon of sorts who seems to adapt and attach to men and women who will most immediately offer him the path of least resistance through life. Dottore is torn between committing his duty and walking away from it, persistently pushed on by his colleague Manganiello, the epitome of the fascist regime devoid of free thought and simply exists to follow orders unquestionably. Dottore knows that in killing the professor he is in fact destroying an ideology as well as a part of himself forever. It is the point of no return. He is also torn between his naïve, young beautiful fiancée, a perfect representation of a trophy to present to the outside world and project the image he wants to in order to be considered normal, and they equally young and beautiful wife of the man he is meant to murder. The film’s climax comes in a wonderful wooded setting and the result becomes something of an enthralling cross between Bonnie & Clyde and William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
Dottore is a metaphor for the country as a whole during these tumultuous times under Il Duce in constant conflict of how to behave whether sexually, religiously or politically. Bertolucci portrays these themes with constant symbolism and metaphor in each character and situation, much like the great Pasolini from whom he learned under. However, it doesn’t always seem as heavy as those films, there is a fun air to this one, sometimes playful as seen in the dance sequence at the Chinese restaurant where entire crowd of people form a dance circle enveloping him, culminating in an overhead shot of Dottore in its swirling center. This seems like something lifted straight out of a Fellini film, two distinct styles both apparent in Bertolucci’s work.
Most importantly though, is this film’s wonderful aesthetic as it is so stunning. A few scenes that really pop out are those with his fiancée. When we first meet her we see an expertly lit room, the slatted windows casting deep horizontal shadows all across the room which works perfectly in conjunction with the striped dress that she is wearing. Later, we see a romantic scene in a train compartment, the sun is setting through the window in the background casting a spectacular orange glow across the whole scene. In fact, pay attention to the windows through this entire film and not just the windows but the drapes and curtains as well which lend to that breezy feeling I mentioned earlier. They play important roles in many of the scenes and Bertolucci’s mastery of lighting here is reminiscent of something out of the paintings of Diego Velazquez. If you aren’t familiar with 60s/70s Italian cinema this is a good place to start and I urge everyone to check this out. Bertolucci is good entry point into the Italian school because he acts as a buffer, existing in both the old style as well as what would become the contemporary Italian filmmaking that exists today. He’s a rare talent in that respect, spanning and bridging both time periods.