12 September 2011 | secondtake
Visually amazing, great sets and sites and blocking, great light, and a very good story, too!
The Conformist (1970)
Well, the reputation this movie has for visual brilliance is well earned. There are whole scenes, lasting just seconds, that are breathtaking not only for the setting (or the sets) but for the way it's composed, a pair of figures in one place, a different scenario (and light) in the background. It's endlessly fascinating and evolving, this play of space and light and figures (actors, yes) moving through it all.
It's also so stylized it becomes a force of its own, above the plot, which has its own kind of surreal fragmentation. So the end result is simply being there, somewhere, and having events twirl around you. This is almost enough. It's magical and moving and simply beautiful. The cinematographer was Vittorio Stararo, in one of his first films. He has worked with the director, Bernardo Bertolucci, on a whole bunch of films ("Last Tango in Paris" might be the most famous for American viewers), and also with other directors for some of their masterpieces: "Apocalypse Now" and "Reds" are just two.
This large, controlling, sometimes self-serving style might not suit everyone, but it does me. And in this case ("The Conformist") it's actually the strongest element. The rest of the movie is really a little bit of a mixed bag. That the end result is pretty fabulous is a testament to making some odd pieces fit, or not fit, perfectly.
What doesn't become clear for some time is the point of the title, which is the moving, significant point of the movie: the main character survives Fascist Italy and then post-War, anti-Fascist Italy, but "conforming," which is to say, he doesn't have particular beliefs, but he knows what will get him to survive. And for him, survival is all that matters, even if it means a watered down life. His professor of many years earlier is just the opposite, and is a kind of hero and de-facto enemy to him. This professor has left Italy in order to fight Mussolini, and he has to face death threats as a consequence.
It's always interesting when the main character, this blow-with-the-wind Marcello, is not especially admirable or even interesting. He is surrounded by some quirky and inevitably interesting people, for sure, but even the two most important of these, his wife and his lover, are kind of symbolic and slightly unaffected types. I mean unaffected by all this terrible stuff going on in the lead up to the War.
And so the end result is we are less affected than you would expect. Or like. Yes, I know this movie gets hugely appreciative reviews, and I think it's for the ambiance, and for the big anti-Fascist message (which is smart and powerful and I agree with). But as a drama between people trying to find themselves, to love the right people, to accomplish a violent political crime, it remains distant, at least most of the time.
Another thing to note: even though the titles are in English, this was and is an Italian movie, with dialog in Italian and a little French. You'll find the sound is awkwardly dubbed--and I mean dubbed in the original language, a looseness of lip-synching that just wouldn't make it in Hollywood (and which you see in other earlier Italian films). Because in fact the dialog is often re-recorded later in movies like this (for superior sound, or because there was too much ambient interference), the synching becomes an issue. Ignore it if you can. It bugged me sometimes.
Overall, yes, this is a kind of masterpiece--flawed, a little bit at arm's length, but stunning, too, and with an important theme.