IF A HOLLYWOOD espionage/crime drama were written by François Truffaut and directed by Federico Fellini, it might end up looking something like ‘Il Conformista’. It is, in other words, a quintessential representation of Bernardo Bertolucci’s vision. The film is a dense study of its laconic titular character made supple by a sensual nouveau atmosphere, then seared into memory through stark visuals. These fall into two categories: simple settings made marvelous through lighting and perspective, and striking, Romanesque sets reduced to their absolute essence. The inside of a train compartment saturated in a golden sepia glow contrasts with the sprawling white marble tundra of the insane asylum. (Julie Taymor’s ‘Titus’ is the more theatrical, latter-day continuation of the style.) This interplay between images is appropriate, given the film’s prepossession with memory, itself a vibrantly unpredictable thing. Not merely cerebral, though, ‘Il Conformista’ is achingly beautiful and a triumph of balance between the poeticism and practicality of film.
In this case, the canvas for our collage is Clerici, an Italian fascist struggling with his loyalties before the outbreak of WWII. Two years after ‘Il Conformista’, Coppola would reinterpret many of this film’s themes in the more marketable, Romantic, and less geopolitical context of the mafia. Unencumbered by that film’s monolithic archetype of ‘the don’ (fascism is barely present in practice and serves more as an excuse for conflict than a conduit of it), ‘Il Conformista’ is free to explore a more universal human dynamic. Although Clerici is stingy in his expressions and affections, his memories play out before us in vivid flashbacks and his adult dilemmas are given striking physical form in the contemporary plotline.
To balance this complicated act requires a minute attention to detail, at which Bertolucci (in collaboration with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro) excels. Symbolism is packed into the programming of the film, ranging from the unmistakable—a tightening spiral of dancers surrounding Clerici, his shadow disappearing against a wall when the shutters are cast open—to the subconscious—striped dresses and shutters evoking a prison cell, an engagement party arranged by a blind friend taking place in a basement.
As the film approaches its central focus, the fascist Clerici reunites with a liberal professor from his school days, and the two discuss the theory of Plato’s cave. A deep melancholy that goes unexpressed, but from time to time sweeps up suddenly, like the leaves in the driveway, to draw a dampening blanket over our senses. And this may be all that the conformist wants—to have his protruding edges blunted or disguised; to be subsumed.
In the aftermath of Mussolini’s fall, Clerici takes to the streets “to see how a dictatorship falls.” Surrounded by night, he experiences a fall of his own, and is left without friends, faith, a party, and even loses the trauma that he thought had shaped him entirely. As he finally subsides, and ceases his restless questing, he sits on a dusty stoop before a barred doorway, beyond which firelight glows. The camera cuts to behind the bars and regards his back. Until he turns to face us, the fire, and the light beyond the cave.