The Conformist, 1900 


The Conformist
(Paramount Home Video)

There's good reason for 1970's The Conformist to be the No. 1 recommended DVD in the current issue of Film Comment. A dynamic adaptation of Italian novelist Alberto Moravia's novel about a fascist spy sent to assassinate a subversive who happens to be his most influential college professor, The Conformist represents the moment director Bernardo Bertolucci came of age as an auteur of distinction. In previous films, he was clearly emulating his influences (Pasolini in La Commare Secca, Godard in Partner). Here is the birth of Bertolucci as we know him today: impeccably stylized and politically conscious, lyrically moving and sexually uninhibited.

Style and story exist in perfect harmony in The Conformist. Shot by legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, the film is a visual buffet of elegance. Storaro and Bertolucci employ chilly tracking shots, slanted angles and masterful chiaroscuro lighting (a hanging light swings like a pendulum in one scene, surely a reference to Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Corbeau), but it's the narrative that lends the movie such tragic resonance. Jean-Louis Trintignant's titular character, forever outcast after a disturbing experience changed his life at a young age, becomes a hit man under Mussolini's government as a way to conform to an established ideal of normality. This

results in his callous political, sexual and emotional betrayal of everyone around him.

Two years after the release of The Conformist, Bertolucci would validate his legacy as an erotic provocateur with Last Tango in Paris. Four years after that, the residue of sexual controversy still lingers over 1900, but the film is a rebirth for the director, jettisoning small, intimate stories and jump-starting the large ensembles and epic, often historical sweeps that have since commandeered his camera. Running longer than five hours and buttressed by an international cast of stars (including Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Stefania Sandrelli, Burt Lancaster and Donald Sutherland), the film captures a century of Italian history through the strained relationship of two childhood friends, born on the same day but on different sides of the sociopolitical divide. Exciting and educational, 1900 is exemplary Bertolucci, a beautifully shot comment on how class defines worth.

Paramount's transfers on both of these DVDs are fantastic, bringing out all of Bertolucci's visual and aural textures. The extras are merely serviceable; there are about 40 minutes of slick, topically separated featurettes on each DVD, all production trivia and loving remembrances rather than critical analysis.

More by John Thomason


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