I admit to having scarce objectivity when it comes to Bernardo Bertolucci's 1970 masterpiece, The Conformist. To me it's always been one of those textbook films, right up there with Citizen Kane and Breathless in terms of cinematic achievement. That may be in part due to being introduced to it in a college directing class, where its scenes were dissected and held up as exemplars of filmmaking artistry. In the years after film school I even became mildly obsessed with it, treasuring my VHS copy of the laser disc (this was the '80s) and regularly studying that dubbed, cropped presentation with the fervid eyes of an acolyte.
After a recent viewing on Netflix (yes, I also own the DVD), I still think The Conformist is pretty amazing. And while its ambiguities, classical pacing, and nonlinear plot may not be for everyone, the gorgeous expressionist imagery (courtesy of Vittorio Storaro), beautifully shot actresses—in their beautifully made clothes—combined with Georges Delerue's sweeping score make it a treat for the eyes and ears, even if you're not always sure what's going on.
As we eventually piece together, his assignment for the Party will be a genuine test of his character: assassinate his former college professor, now a political exile living in Paris. To do this, Marcello must confront not only his fitness to commit such a deed, but his unexpected feelings for the professor's mysteriously alluring wife.
Again, simple enough, and a story we've seen before. But what makes The Conformist such a thrilling piece of filmmaking is the way it mixes up its ingredients. Bertolucci and Storaro, young guns out to prove themselves—and with this film, they would—use every cinematic trick at their disposal to convey Marcello's fractured psychological state amid the fractured world around him. A gracefully fluid camera takes advantage of each of Storaro's perfectly lit compositions, achieving a baroque style that's far more than show. In depicting Marcello's very subjective perception of his own memories, the film has license to create dreamlike, even surreal, moments—some made all the more powerful by the imposing modernist architecture that frames them. In depicting 1930s fascist Italy, Bertolucci chose to go beyond realism, to "realism plus cinema."
But I don't want to give the impression that The Conformist is some kind of precious, artistic exercise good only for snob appeal. Because as artful as it is, it's also a suspenseful and romantic work, especially as its momentum builds (the justifiably famous scene in the woods will leave you sick with dread). It also fulfills the most basic cinematic requirement: presenting faces you can't help staring at.
As the stoical and conflicted Marcello, Jean Louis Trintignant pulls off his neurotic tough guy act with aplomb, at times resembling a more smoothly planed Humphrey Bogart. A quiet, thoughtful actor whose career took off as Brigitte Bardot's hapless husband in 1956's And God Created Woman, Trintignant became a mainstay of international cinema after playing the romantic lead in 1966's A Man and a Woman, and continued to receive worldwide acclaim in such films as 1994's Three Colors: Red and 2012's Amour.
The Conformist may not be as seminal as Citizen Kane and Breathless, and was less heralded than the groundbreaking earlier work of fellow countrymen Visconti, Antonioni, and Fellini—or even Bertolucci's own notorious follow-up, Last Tango In Paris. And yet The Conformist's influence has spread far and wide, especially among filmmakers. On a superficial level its style was appropriated by fashion and advertising—and lesser directors—long ago, while many of its scenes and storytelling techniques found their way into such works as The Godfather Part II, Miller's Crossing, and even The Sopranos (strangely, all gangster stories).
Storaro went on to become a legend among cinematographers, lending his eye to epics like Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Warren Beatty's Reds. And while Bertolucci continued to produce excellent work, including 1987's Oscar powerhouse, The Last Emperor (also shot by Storaro), The Conformist remains arguably better than anything he directed before or since. With the exception of one unnecessary scene (belatedly restored in 2006), the film provides an enduring lesson in perfectly crafted, artistically realized cinema, serving as the template for how to marry style with substance, sound with image, and subject matter with point of view.
But don't take my word for it. See it yourself.