What kind of man gets himself in such a pickle that --- on his honeymoon --- he's given a gun and asked to kill a professor he's always admired?
That is the question presented to us at the beginning of "The Conformist," as Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) sits in a Paris hotel room, waiting for the call that will tell him it's time to kill the professor. If you love movies, the answer --- told in a series of flashbacks, and, on occasion, flashbacks within flashbacks --- will make for one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences of your life.
Let's get the praise out of the way right off. Bernardo Bertolucci --- known to most moviegoers for his Oscar-winning "The Last Emperor" and his down-and-dirty "Last Tango in Paris" --- made "The Conformist" at 29. It is a young man's film, drenched in ambition. It is also Bertolucci's greatest film. Indeed, it is one of the ten greatest films I've ever seen.
First, "The Conformist" is beautiful in the extreme. The cinematographer was the great Vittorio Storaro, and his color palette is so exquisite that Francis Ford Coppola watched this film over and over before making "The Godfather" --- and then hired Storaro to shoot "Apocalypse Now." The production designer was Ferdinando Scarfiotti, whose credits include "Death in Venice" and "Scarface." And Georges Delerue, who did the scores for "Jules and Jim" and "Platoon", composed the music.
Then there is the acting. Trintignant is one of the most familiar faces in French cinema; this is the performance of his life. But mostly, I want to praise Dominique Sanda, then just 22 years old and making only her third movie. She plays the professor's wife, and she unfailingly strikes a remarkable balance --- on one hand, she's the loyal spouse, on another, she's a bi-sexual flirt, and on yet a third, she's the only character in the story who senses the tragedy that lies ahead.
And, finally, there is the story, adapted from the novel by Alberto Moravia, one of Italy's most seductive novelists. Sex is almost a character for Moravia, and it certainly is here --- as the title suggests, Clerici's greatest desire is to be normal, to be one of the faceless masses, to conform.
That's not so easily done in Italy in 1936. Mussolini has brought down the Fascist boot; progressives have fled the country. So Clerici takes a rich, vapid wife. He makes his accommodation with the government. And with that --- he thinks --- he's safe.
But there are no hiding places in life --- and certainly not in a dictatorship of madmen. And then there is the question of the past: How do you acquire a "normal" life if you never had one before? As we flash back, we see that Clerici's privileged childhood was anything but normal. His mother awoke at noon, looking for her first shot of the day. He was raised by nannies. And then there was the encounter with the chauffeur...
What Bertolucci is exploring here is the equation of politics with sex. In a film financed by an American studio, that equation would be explicit and vulgar. Here, every connection is made through imagery and suggestion. Your jaw will drop at scene after scene, but you'll be on the edge of your seat during one in particular --- an evening at a Parisian dance hall when Sanda dances with Clerici's wife. It's a breathtaking seduction, hotter in some ways than sex itself.
Why does Clerici freeze when he's given a gun? Can he kill the professor? What happens to Sanda? And, jumping ahead, what does the Fascist's defeat mean for Clerici? Bertolucci's screenplay is brilliant on these key questions; you are always leaning in, thinking it through, putting the puzzle together. And, of course, you are invited to imagine --- as we always do in great films --- how would I handle this? What would I do if I were Clerici?
And now I must share some tragic news: "The Conformist" is not available on DVD. There's only a VHS. The consolation: Storaro oversaw the transfer. Still, the difficulty of seeing this remarkable film is an injustice that somebody really ought to fix.
For those too frustrated to rent or acquire a VHS tape of "The Conversation," let me recommend "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis", also starring Dominique Sanda, made a year later and exploring some of the same themes. Or you could read Alberto Moravia's novel. But be warned: This is that rare case --- a movie so much better than the book that reading it is a disappointment.