The Conformist Review

The following film review has been taken from Mike Sutton's review of Paramount's The Conformist R1 DVD released in 2006

Bernardo Bertolucci was one of the great directors of the 1970s, the product of the same film-obsessed generation that produced Coppola and Scorsese. His early films are interesting and well made but his first masterpiece was The Conformist, made in 1970. He followed this up with two more amazing films, Last Tango in Paris - containing Brando’s finest performance – and 1900 before declining into personal obsessions and, most depressingly, respectability with The Last Emperor. But his best work remains just as vital as it ever was, as two new DVDs from Paramount remind us.

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The Conformist, based on the novel by Alberto Moravia, concerns Marcello Clerici (Trintignant), an Italian who is about to get married to a middle-class woman Giulia (Sandrelli). Marcello’s obsession with conforming to the norms of society extends to joining a secret government organisation. He volunteers to seek out the anti-fascist Professor Quadri (Tarascio) and is eventually told to assassinate him. But things become complicated when Marcello and his wife meet the Professor’s wife, Anna (Sanda).

SPOILERS AHEAD

One of the most famous passages in the Gospel of Mark asks what profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul. All very well, but what about a man who doesn’t have soul to lose? The Conformist is, on one level, a film about moral compromise in Fascist Italy, but it’s also an intensely stylised study of a man who is so obsessed with fitting in, with ‘conforming’, that he has become an empty vessel to be filled with the prevailing obsessions and prejudices of the society in which he finds himself. But behind the elegant conformity, there is a terrifying vacuum which can never be penetrated; not by love, hatred or any recognisable human feeling. Marcello is always willing to make a deal with the devil in order to appear ‘one of us’, but in fact he gave away his soul years ago, as we discover, when – as a teenage boy – he shot and apparently killed a chauffeur who was in the process of seducing him. It’s a simplistic psycho-sexual explanation but it works in the context of the film because we can see that right from that moment, Marcello damned himself to a secret life - the ultimate secret being that he has nothing except the disguise of normality that he is so desperate to put on. The murder of which he feels guilty has frozen something inside of him and when, at the end of the film, he blankly stares into the middle distance as he performs a terrible betrayal, we can see the void behind the eyes.

Jean-Louis Trintignant is the perfect actor to play Marcello because he knows how to hold something back. He’s an actor of secrets and many of the characters he has played are men with hidden lives – or in the case of Marcello, a hidden non-life. This has, over the years, become somewhat iconic and his patented screen image has been used memorably in films such as Three Colours: Red and the aged Dehousse in A Self Made Hero. But Marcello is given numerous levels by the actor and we begin to see that this most banal of man comes to life only when playing his parts to the full – stiff-backed Fascist, misogynist, seducer, petit-bourgeois husband, gun-toting assassin. Yet when the part requires action, he reaches his limits and freezes. He can play the part but he can’t inhabit the soul because his soul is missing – in this context, it’s deeply ironic that Marcello quotes the Emperor Hadrian’s famous farewell to his soul. Trintignant’s deep and true performance is perhaps the peak of his screen work. The moments that you remember aren’t so much his insolent wit when talking to his mother but the silences in the car with the Fascist thug Manganiello as Marcello has his coat buttoned up like the gumshoe in a Film Noir. Being buttoned-up might also suggest that Marcello is repressing his own homosexuality – that the shooting of the seducer was an act of horrified self-recognition perhaps – but this is a reading which I don’t think the film fully confirms. Marcello’s act of deviance in the seduction and shooting certainly repels and terrifies him but I don’t think that, as an adult, he has any particular orientations beyond the ones which he puts on to try and conform.

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The Film Noir reference seems appropriate because there is a sense in which Marcello is descending into the kind of moral squalor that so many Noir heroes have to negotiate in their investigations. But it’s different here because it’s a willing descent – more than that, it’s a sought descent by a man who feels that passing by the pigsty isn’t enough; you have to wallow in the pig-shit so you stink of it. But the look of the film has a lot of Noir about it, particularly the very striking Expressionist use of light and shadow by DP Vittorio Storaro - at one point, Marcello seems to be locked inside a middle-class cage by bars of shadow on the walls. The series of cages in which Marcello imprisons himself is symbolised by the extraordinary use of ornate and intimidating architecture. As director, Bertolucci draws our attention to these cages by contrasting them with extraordinarily outlandish crane shots and some dreamily luxuriant use of tracking.

There’s some debate to be had about how political a film The Conformist is. It’s certainly a film about society but it doesn’t raise a banner for either right or left, largely because the central character is such a deliberate blank. Bertolucci apparently relished the chance to gain revenge on the leftist denunciation of him by giving the assassinated Professor the telephone number of Jean-Luc Godard, but I don’t think that reflects any more than a private bit of revenge. What is very obvious, however, is Bertloucci’s delight at making a film about Fascism which is so lushly decadent. Everything about the film is a bit too much, in a good way. A simple scene such as Marcello joining his mother in the front of the car becomes a visual orgy by the use of a tracking shot through billowing autumn leaves. The colours become increasingly obsessive – oranges and blues smother the images in places – and the costumes and production design flaunt profligacy to the point where it would be easy to believe that Bertolucci really had gone back in time to the 1930s to make a film at the height of the Hollywood Golden Age. Even Georges Delerue’s beautiful music score is consciously over the top, particularly in my favourite moment – the gorgeous sequence where Marcello and his wife make love in a railway carriage.

There’s a very clear influence from Visconti here and it’s surely no coincidence that the art director, Ferdinando Scarfiotti, had worked with the Count during the 1960s. Sometimes, there’s no excuse for the decisions made by Bertolucci and his collaborators other than a delight in their own brilliance – the insane asylum in the stadium for example, which works brilliantly but doesn’t make a jot of sense on a realist level.

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Part of this delighted debauch is the flagrant eroticism of the movie, something which Bertolucci developed in his later work; brilliantly in Last Tango, less so in La Luna and The Dreamers. The aforementioned love scene is the most erotic railway journey in film history, at least as far as this viewer is concerned, and the famous tango between those stunning actresses Stefania Sandrelli and Dominique Sanda isn’t far behind. Difference of one kind or another haunts Marcello – the blindness of his friend Montanari, the homosexuality of the chauffeur – and the deviancy of Sanda both fascinates and terrifies him. He stands and watches as she stalks and entraps his wife with a mixture of delight and sadness, as if he’s realising both the joys of non-conformity and his own inability to ever experience it. It’s this recognition of how special Sanda is, how unique, that makes his inaction to save her all the more chilling.

This inaction comes towards the end of the assassination scene, a justly famous series of images which come so fast at the viewer that it’s hard, on first viewing, to completely take them in. They are horrific certainly but somehow abstracted, as if we’re seeing them from Marcello’s non-involved point of view. It’s only towards the end, when we see Sanda’s face pushed up against the car door and, subsequently, smeared with her own blood, that the human element is fully indulged. This is the scene which the film has led towards, with its complex flashbacks and accumulating sense of dread, and it has extraordinary power.

At the end of the film, I always return in my mind to that quotation from the Gospel of Mark and wonder what Marcello has actually gained. He stares at the camera for a few moments too long right at the end and perhaps what he gains in a certain self-realisation – but his eyes are blank. The immolation of the self is complete and irrevocable. But if this is a tragedy, it’s a tragedy for Professor and Anna Quadri. It’s not tragic for Marcello. How can it be when everything was lost so long ago?


Presentation

Arrow Academy have brought The Conformist simultaneously to both Blu-ray and DVD as part of a Dual Format Edition, so we've got two formats to discuss here but the primary focus of this review is on the Blu-ray:

What I've managed to gather about the tribulations of The Conformist in High Definition so far (and most of this information is based on google translations of Italian news articles, so if anyone reading this knows these facts to be wrong then please leave a comment!!) is that last May a new restoration of The Conformist was screened in the Cannes Classics section of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and then later shown across Italy in June and August. This new restoration - a collaboration between Cineteca di Bologna and Minerva RaroVideo - was allegedly supervised by Vittorio Storaro himself and appeared to be looking great when Cineteca di Bologna posted HD screenshots in an article on their website back in September.

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What happened next was that Raro released The Conformist on BD with a transfer that was nuked with as much DNR as you can before the actors start to get erased along with the noise. Arrow Acadamy is the first distributor to handle The Conformist in HD since that disappointing Italian BD, so there's been some expectation and trepidation leaning on this release since the start. Early signs were encouraging: their early press statement and booklet happily promotes that the HD master was supplied by Minerva and approved by Vittorio Storaro, with further restoration work organised by Arrow in London to clean up light scratches, debris, and other instabilities. Thankfully, this does not mean that they DNR'd the master to death like Raro did as the transfer immediately hits you with a very organic, grainy image right from the start.

It's at this point that I should state that I have never had the pleasure of viewing The Conformist in 35mm, in fact I'd never had the pleasure of viewing The Conformist at all until the check disc arrived on my doorstep, so I'm less than qualified to discuss how sharp the film should appear, but while I found the transfer to be pleasingly organic I was also a little surprised by how soft it appeared on my 109" projector setup. Close ups exhibited a solid amount of fine detail but mid-to-long range shots where much less expressive, it's very possible - highly probable even - that the detail was just never there in the first place given the age of the film, but the grain itself was much fuzzier than I'm used to seeing in films from the 60s/70s (or any era), which can be a telltale sign that the definition of the image might be slightly lacking. This is definitely NOT an upscale, there is a definite improvement in detail over the old Paramount DVD and the Arrow DVD provided alongside this Blu-ray, but likewise if you're watching on a smaller display I doubt the definition of the Blu-ray will offer a giant leap in sharpness over those offerings.

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The good news is that just about every other aspect of the transfer is impressive, the colour scheme in particular is genuinely leaps and bounds beyond any other home release of the film. The contrast between the bland earthen tones of fascist Italy and the more colourful French locales is absolutely pivotal to the style of The Conformist and the Arrow transfer traverses these different palettes beautifully, with strong primary colours and gorgeous blue tones in the scenes that use a blue filter. Contrast levels are pretty naturalistic, maybe a fraction low resulting in some slightly lighter black levels in some scenes, but generally very pleasing, and there are no signs of Edge Enhancement or blatant noise reduction in play. Arrow may have done some further clean-up work to remove scratches and debris, but they haven't been too zealous with this as some flecks and scratches appear sporadically throughout. From what I can gather the master was created from the original negative and there are some very minor distortions in a handful of frames at various points throughout which look a little like a ripple running through the image, but these are so brief you'll hardly notice them.

Compression is also very solid, the AVC encode has a healthy average bitrate of 35Mbps, but given the lack of detail a little compression noise has gotten through, including some faint banding, but I can't say I noticed anything of note during regular playback. It's a pleasing effort from Arrow that easily improves on the neutered Italian release, but viewers with large screen home theatres be warned that the clarity of this release isn't going to elevate it into the reference disc pile of your collection.

In comparison the progressive PAL DVD transfer is a little softer, a little darker, and the colour balance is noticeably redder. There's also some possible Edge Enhancement present, but overall I'd say that those without Blu-ray players have not been short-changed by the presentation.

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Audio comes as a sole Italian 2.0 mono track on each disc: 2.0 LPCM on the Blu-ray and DD2.0 on the DVD. The Blu-ray audio certainly shows its age with hiss, speckle and some minor distortions present throughout the track, and a lack of bass that leads to a generally hollow sound, but it's still dynamic enough on the higher end so it has no problems bringing Georges Delerue's expressive score to life. The joint Italian/French dialogue was post-dubbed and thus sounds a little high in the mix, so you'll also have no problem following the dialogue if you're fluent enough in either language. I can't say I noticed any significant differences in the DD2.0 effort on the DVD, the Blu-ray may sound a touch tighter but that's about it.

Optional English subtitles are included on both discs, with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.

Extras

An initial glimpse of the list of extra features on both the BD & DVD may not seem all that impressive, but that will depend on how familiar you are with the name David Forgacs, an Italian film expert who is building up a reputation as one of the best audio commentators out there on his favourite subject after recording tracks for the BFI BD releases of The Leopard and Red Desert. Here's the rundown:

Bernardo Bertolucci: Reflections on Cinema (51m:32s, 1080i AVC, Italian LPCM 2.0, Eng subs)
Produced by Radiotelevisione italiana (RAI) in 2001, this documentary edits together all manner of stock interviews with Bertolucci from the RAI archives to build a linear timeline of his career, starting with interviews where the director discusses his formative years under Pier Paolo Pasolini's tutelage, then covering all the major films in his oeuvre right up to Stealing Beauty. There's no narration, just clips of Bertolucci on set, at festivals, in TV interviews and anywhere else where a camera is pointed, and while his career is covered chronologically, the interview footage isn't chronological itself so it can take a few minutes to get into. Bertolucci however, always comes across as passionate and articulate when put to the task of discussing his influences and films, so this documentary is never boring.

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Audio Commentary with David Forgacs
Forgacs wastes no time with introductions and his style is very formal and tightly scripted, which might be a little jarring to those used to more chatty commentaries, but Forgacs really knows his stuff and provides a fantastic commentary that is worth a hundred Making Of featurettes. If like me you've only recently discovered the film and maybe know little about Bertolucci's career or the fascist setting of the film then this commentary is a must listen, as Forgacs fleshes out all the minor detail of the plot, the cast, Bertolucci's career before and since, and all the historical details that shaped or directly influenced the film. There's probably enough insight to surprise the Bertolucci buffs as well!

32pg Booklet featuring Essays and Interviews with Bernardo Bertolucci
A more than worthwhile addendum to the discs, the main bulk of the contents are three separate pieces that thoroughly analyse both The Conformist and Bertolucci himself. First is an essay on The Conformist by American film critic Michael Atkinson, which acts as a quirkier counterpoint to Forgacs' commentary. Next is a very insightful interview with Bertolucci conducted by Marilyn Goldin for Sight & Sound in 1971, which offers a much more in-depth breakdown of The Conformist by the director than the Reflections on Cinema documentary on the discs. Finally are excerpts of Bertolucci's reflections on film, the viewer, and the relationship between film and society, taken from Ellen Oumano's 1985 book: Film Forum: Thirty-Five Top Filmmakers Discuss their Craft.

Overall

A film of tremendous artistry and influence, The Conformist is also a deeply involving character study that demands a place in any serious cinephile's collection. Aside from some mild reservations about the sharpness of the Blu-ray transfer, this new Dual Format release from Arrow easily represents the best this film has ever looked on home video, and while it may appear short on Extra Features, the documentary and particularly the David Forgacs commentary provide a tremendous amount of information on the work of Bernardo Bertolucci.

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Film
9 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
8 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

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