Film Reviews

Revisiting the Classics – Film Review: The Conformist

Alex Watkin

What does it mean to be a normal? What does it mean to be normal when normal is fascism?

The Conformist (1970) directed by Bernardo Bertolucci handles difficult and intricate concepts of social acceptance with real substance through a subtle and quiet character study set to the backdrop of Mussolini’s Italy.

The Conformist is my introduction to the work of Bertolucci so unfortunately I can’t yet view it in the context of his other work in any substantial capacity. However, this film is very much at the dawn of the Hollywood resurgence of the 1970s; its approach to storytelling, which is one I have a personal bias towards, is a major influence on the character driven realism of this period (Taxi Driver, Godfather, The Deer Hunter, The Conversation) and so I aim to review it as part of this context and canon of films.

Having such a detached protagonist does result in his motivation in particular individual scenes being lost or difficult to read

Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the central character of Italian Marcello Clevici the ‘Conformist’. A character trapped in existential introspection over his identity, desperately caught up in the desire to follow the expectations of social norms to the degree where he enlists in the Fascist Secret Police, all in the belief that it will allow him to live his life released from the societal embarrassment of child molestation and his self-defined parent’s reputation.

The character’s motivation is communicated quickly enough, ensuring Trintignant’s reserved performance through the majority of the film is understandable. Although, at times, having such a detached protagonist does result in his motivation in particular individual scenes being lost or difficult to read.

With a character that has a level of moral ambiguity like Marcello, it is certainly a challenge for the director to know how distant to keep the protagonist from the audience; how uncompromising the POV should be to mediate the level of blind sympathy the audience has for the protagonist. This issue is always a topic of debate with derivatives of The Conformist, most recently with the actions of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker in Todd Philips’ Joker (2019). Bertolucci’s Conformist certainly handles these elements with more careful consideration than Joker, yet whether it is too far in any one direction will depend on the individual – for me: I’m undecided.

Unlike the aforementioned Joker, The Conformist’s story operates most effectively on a holistic level; on reaching the final few moments of the film it fully forms, connections organically emerge between the subliminally absorbed moments throughout the film. Most notably, the returning motif of Marcello’s passivity towards music and dance. An ingenious visual device of communicating character development that is truly deserving of the medium.

Often all a character driven story requires is clear motivation and an initial inciting incident to really captivate the audience. This is not the case for a film which is based primarily upon an interwoven plot; very rarely can a film keep me invested unless I have characters or themes to grasp onto. However, at times during The Conformist’s 108 minutes there is the sense of yearning for a shorter runtime; perhaps it needs a tighter plot to frame the character driven story and provide a little more momentum. Yet, the film never bores, because throughout Vittorio Storaro infatuates with cinematography that is almost constantly alluring.

Bertolucci’s Conformist tackles underlying ideas of the human condition, balancing nuance and coherence with competence

You will get tired of thinking ‘that’s a nice shot’ long before the film’s most visually alluring Dance Hall sequence. The character of Vittorio Storaro’s frame is one of  grace and refinement whilst still maintaining a sense of Italian Neorealism’s tactility, which will seduce many who normally require the trappings of modern commercial cinema when engaging with a sophisticated character study.  

Bertolucci’s Conformist tackles underlying ideas of the human condition, balancing nuance and coherence with competence. Even despite a noticeable coincidence to contrive the final moments, The Conformist’s holistic approach undoubtedly succeeds. It doesn’t surpass or equal all of its derivatives, but the fact that the ending’s objective fragility barely diminishes its emotional and intellectual satisfaction is a reminder that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Alex Watkin

Featured image courtesy of Roey Ahram via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In-article images courtesy of @cinematologist_ via No changes made to these images.

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