The Conformist ★★★½

A harsh, chilly political thriller of sorts, more of a grim character piece, in which a Italian nonentity working for Secret Police, riddled with trauma, turns toward fascism to cover up his lack of an identity; there is cavorting and amorality and a belated epiphany, and an anti-hero whose desperation for "normalcy" long prevents any moral quandary about what the government is asking of him. Quick and intelligent, the film's story -- from a more explicitly political Alberto Moravia novel -- is still honestly nothing deep or revelatory, chiefly because Marcello as a character isn't much of an entity; the script fails to find a way to allow us to know him rather than simply telling us the raw mechanics of his psyche, in relatively neat beginning-middle-end fashion, and his cool detachment registers mostly as fantasy despite all the pessimism, like a fascist James Bond. All that said, thanks to Berolucci and Vittorio Storaro, this is one of the most distinctive-looking films of its era, with arresting color, unconventional camera movements and endlessly surprising angles and images that call Rene Magritte and Leni Riefenstahl to mind in their evocation of the angular majesty of fascist architecture.

I'm admittedly a Bertolucci amateur (have only seen Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor and The Dreamers prior to this) but I find myself leaping to the conclusion that this presents a division as much in the director as in his lead character -- the full commitment to the unconventional narrative structure and cynical, despairing character development and politics, disrupted by hints at a transgressive sexuality that seem to strike more directly at his heart of hearts. Of course it's all connected, obviously, but it can feel like two different movies; I'm not sure which is more interesting, only that they're both fucking gorgeous.