The son of a poet, Bernardo Bertolucci was a prize-winning poet himself by the age of 21. Then came a turn in the road, and he spent the next two decades making a powerful case that, to use his words, "cinema is the true poetic language." In 1961 he dropped out of college to become Pasolini's assistant and directed two films on his own in the mid-Sixties.
Then, in 1970, two years before creating his revolutionary landmark, Last Tango in Paris, the young Italian director made what many still consider his masterpiece--The Conformist.
Based on a novel by Alberto Moravia and produced for just $750,000, this haunted, ironic study of prewar European society focuses on a decadent intellectual named Marcello, portrayed with cool conviction by Jean-Louis Trintignant. The year is 1938, and in an attempt to repress childhood traumas and vanish into the current environment, Marcello offers his services to Mussolini's Fascists. He is deputized to assassinate his former professor, now an exiled leftist leader, in Paris. But Marcello falls under the spell of the victim's beautiful young bride (Dominique Sanda), whom Bertolucci uses as an embodiment of repressed desires. For the elegant, misdirected Marcello and the others, tragedy is the only possible path.
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The film is an extended poem of darkness and light, a complex of fascinating political intrigues and a reminder of the kind of filmmaker Bertolucci was before his current descent into the flabby mysticism of The Sheltering Sky and Little Buddha.
The Conformist is now back on the big screen (at the Mayan April 21-27) in a new print supervised by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. This is a rare opportunity for those who want to revisit the film's famous scenes--the fete for blind Fascists; the encounter of Trintignant and Sanda, cast in blue light, in the cloakroom of a ballet school; the dance-hall scene with Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli that presages Last Tango; the final reckoning in a forest.
Directors as various as Coppola, Scorsese and the Coen brothers have all acknowledged their debts to Bertolucci and The Conformist, and you can be sure they will be attending the nationwide revival.
Those who have never seen this film may be in for an even greater treat--a first look at a brilliant director at the crossroads of his career (he also made The Spider's Stratagem in 1970), working in a time when political fervor, exciting new styles of filmmaking and the belief that all things were possible coalesced. A quarter-century later, The Conformist remains a hypnotic experience.