The Conformist

The Conformist ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.


A literary adaptation that absolutely should not work, since everything of importance happens inside the protagonist's head. Unlike, say, Tom Ripley (whom he otherwise resembles in several key respects; for one in particular, see below), Clerici has no personal goal that fuels actions we can readily interpret, and Trintignant shrewdly keeps a vacuum seal on his performance, giving nothing away even at the film's most operatic moment*. Only the title and a few brief conversations, e.g. Clerici dutifully going to confession, offer a window into the man's warped soul. Yet we're overpowered by a terrible clarity rooted in one gobsmacking image after another. Bertolucci does what a filmmaker should (but so few do): He makes the book his own, remaining mostly faithful to the text, narrative-wise, but finding purely visual correlatives to its language. Somewhat perversely, this involves emphasizing Fascist Italy's garishness to such a degree that Clerici's natural diffidence stands out all the more. I'm something of a Sorrentino apologist, but rewatching The Conformist made me realize that he's too often wedding maximalist formalism to equally emphatic performances, hat-on-a-hat-style; here, Trintignant's opaque stillness is at disarming odds with all the canted angles, expressionistic colors and triumphalist architecture, and it's the contrast that conveys meaning. Though that can be secondary to just drinking in peak Storaro, as when Clerici and Professor Quadri discuss Plato's Cave in an office painstakingly lit so as to embody the allegory.

Still, for all this eye-popping splendor, what had stuck with me most from my sole previous viewing is the final shot, in which Trintignant comes as close as he ever gets to outfitting Clerici with a clearly readable facial expression. I happened to first see The Conformist in 2000, less than a year after The Talented Mr. Ripley came out; at the time, the notion that repressed homosexuality might inspire sociopathic behavior seemed not just inoffensive but obvious—of course denying a core aspect of one's identity could lead to the creation of a nightmare persona. The repression is what matters, not the orientation. While I'm still prepared to defend both films on those grounds (while being more sensitive to/mindful of others' misgivings), the source of Clerici's longing now seems more complex than it once did. His ardor for Anna doesn't seem feigned (certainly the ending loses much of its power if he's just rechanneling imitative straightness) and Giulia's initially flustered but ultimately at least semi-receptive response to Anna's head between her legs suggests deliberate fluidity regarding desire. What's more, it's not as if Clerici is merely gazing at a naked man—Bertolucci has the dude hand-cranking a phonograph, and the sound of Trio Lescano crooning about an existence in shadow carries much of the moment's seductive weight. It's possibility unconsidered that beckons him.

* Bertolucci's one notable mistake, in my opinion, is following Anna into the woods when she's murdered. That sequence is chillingly effective, but it's also the sole deviation from Clerici's point of view in the entire movie. You can make a case that he's imagining it from inside the car, I suppose, but I'd rather the restriction had been maintained; it's arguably more chilling still if we remain with him.

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