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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Classic. The Conformist

The Conformist (Four Stars)

Italian: Bernado Bertolucci, 1970 (Arrow Video)

Bernardo Bertolucci‘s 1970 The Conformist is an art film classic regarded by many cinematographers as the most beautifully photographed movie of its era. Vittorio Storaro, at his best, did the brilliant cinematography and the film’s main visual/stylistic influences include the American romantic/cynic Josef von Sternberg (who made The Blue Angel, with Jannings and Dietrich) and the French Marxist auteur Jean Luc Godard (who made Pierrot le Fou with Belmondo and Karina). And, since Bertolucci was a film buff as well as a film poet, The Conformist is also  in its way, a classic film noir. Or at least a neo-classic neo-noir.

It’s a movie about those old noir standbys: sex and murder and betrayal, guilt and romance and political/police corruption. Adapted from the scathing political novel by Alberto Moravia, it has a politically split and psychologically tormented central character, Marcello Clerici (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant of Z and A Man and a Woman), a man plunged into the chaos of the pre-WW2 era and racked by Freudian desires and guilty secrets.

As a youngster, Bertolucci shows us, the deceptively opaque-faced Marcello had homosexual leanings, which he tried to wipe out in adulthood, by marrying and becoming a good reliable government man — which in Italy, in the 1930s, meant being a good fascist. Marcello is also involved in a messy triangle with his lovely, naive wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) and with the incredibly beautiful bisexual leftist Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda). In the early 1970s, because of this movie, the ravishing blonde Sanda was often described as the most beautiful actress in movies — even though another dazzzling French film blonde, Catherine Deneuve, was still in her youthful prime. (Sanda was also Bertolucci‘s first choice to be Marlon Brando‘s co-star in Last Tango in Paris, but she chose motherhood instead. Many of us wish she’d been able to manage both.)

The Conformist made her a movie immortal. Sanda‘s feverish onscreen tango with Sandrelli against an iridescent, spellbindingly colorfuld background, while Marcello watches, is one of the most justly famous erotic/musical set-pieces in all of the cinema. If that scene doesn’t excite you on several levels, you may be comatose.

Bertolucci later went on to make celebrated and even notorious erotic/political classics like The Last Emperor and Last Tango, but many aficionados still prefer The Conformist: — for its engrossing story, for its cutting political analysis, for the absolutely gorgeous Storaro cinematography (it re4ally is the color equivalent of a great noir black-and-white job), and for the riveting performances by Sanda, Trintignant, Sandrelli, Pierre Clementi (the fancy thug of Bunuel’s Belle de Jour), Yvonne Sanson (the one-time Madonns-like star of Rafaello Mattarazzo’s ’50s melodramas. The Conformist does seem to me one of the great foreign neo-noirs, especially since writer-director Bertolucci himself had such a documented taste for noir.

For years, Bertolucci’s major unrealized dream project was an English-language movie adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s classic crime and suspense novel “Red Harvest,” with Jack Nicholson as Hammett’s nameless detective, the Continental Op. Jack had said yes. Now, how many of you would you like to have seen that movie? With Storaro cinematography? And a role for Dominique Sanda? (I’ve met and interviewed her and she’s not only real-life ravishinh, but she  speaks great English.) But they never green-lighted Red Harvest, and now it’s only another unrealized dream, something wonderful that might have been, another last tango where the music stopped too soon.

The melody still lingers on though — in Bertolucci and Sanda’s perversely beautiful classic The Conformist, a film to dream on. (In Italian with English subtitles.).

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