Film Score: Georges Delerue Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Gastone Moschin and Dominique Sanda
The Conformist is a strangely compelling tale of a thirty-three year old man who has had a bizarre life and wants nothing more than to be “normal.” It’s not a conventional story and it’s not told in a conventional way. One of the things I like most about European films is that they don’t try to compete with Hollywood. It doesn’t just give directors a license to be different, it is almost expected. As such, it gives the viewer an alternative to the product in the United States and adds an incredibly rich experience to the viewer who wants to be challenged rather than pandered to. This film is a wonderful exploration of the dehumanization of Fascism, especially in its expectation that the individual will subsume his individual will within the whole. In the beginning of the film, when Gastone Moschin says he has sacrificed everything for family and country, Jean-Louis Trintignant reminds him that he is supposed to sacrifice for country first.
The opening credits focus on Jean-Louis Trintignant as he sits in a hotel room chair, the bright red light from the sign outside going on an off, alternately bathing him in red and plunging him into darkness until the sun comes up. He leaves the woman in his room and goes out to meet his partner, Gastone Moschin, and they drive in a hurry to catch someone. In flashbacks the audience sees Trintignant as he goes to a radio studio recording a forties program to meet a friend who has put him in contact with colonel Fosco Giachetti with promises of a position in the secret police. The time is just prior to World War Two. Then it’s off to the house of his fiancé, Stefania Sandrelli, where someone has given her an anonymous note about his father in the lunatic asylum. From there he goes to his boyhood home where his drug addicted mother waits for her lover. The two briefly visit the father in the institution before Trintignant goes to confession at the request of the priest who is going to marry him. There’s no real story, per se, as we simply witness incidents in his quest to conform alternating with flashbacks from his strange past.
It eventually becomes clear that the mission he’s on is to kill his former professor from college who has now moved to France to escape the Fascism in Italy. Trintignant is drawn to Fascism because he fits in. He is in line with the government’s position and he feels that by eliminating subversives and rebels that he will guarantee himself the normalcy he craves. But Trintignant is anything but normal. In the novel the film is based on, by Alberto Moravia, it’s clear that from childhood he has been a sociopath, killing animals and even a chauffeur while still a boy. He’s not horrified by the actions, however, what disturbs him is the feeling that he is somehow different from everyone else. When Mussolini comes to power, this is the kind of government where he can become appreciated for what he is. It’s a twisted tale that doesn’t really become clear in Bertolucci’s version until the end of the film.
For Betrolucci, this film was a breakthrough. He had begun working with editor Franco Arcalli who introduced him to the use of free association of scenes and also with the idea of presenting the bulk of the film in flashback. But the director also has a unique visual style, relying heavily on the use of light in the beginning and the end, especially the light divided into bars, whether through blinds or through the trees in a forest. In addition, there are also unusual angles for certain shots, in particular when Trintignant goes back to his childhood home and the camera tilts as he makes his way there. The film was also influential for American directors. Francis Ford Coppola, for example, used both the leaves all over the driveway at the house as well as actor Gastone Moschin in The Godfather II. Though it is a critical darling, the film doesn’t really resonate with me. It’s very interesting but not exactly essential, and the coldness of the main character tends to keep me at a distance emotionally. Still, The Conformist has a lot going for it as a powerful piece of European filmmaking.