Conformist, The (1970): Bertolucci’s First Masterpiece, Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant

Bernardo Bertolucci wrote and directed The Conformist, an extraordinarily rich adaptation of the Alberto Moravia story about an upper-class follower of Mussolini.

Arguably, The Conformist is his most visually satisfying film, one that’s defined by such imagistic splendor that it overcomes issues of ideological coherence and overreliance on Freudian psychology.

A completely subjective film, it is inspired and influenced by Bertolucci’s experience of being in psychoanalytic treatment at the time.

Though the saga is set in 1938, Bertolucci’s view isn’t so much a reconstruction of the past as an infusion from it.

The director rejects chronological narration, juxtaposing time sequences in a complex and intriguing manner.  There are flashbacks within flashbacks, though it’s not hard to follow the story line.

Historian see the film as marking the director’s decisive break from Jean-Luc Godard, a biographical fact which is contained in the film.  Instead, Bertolucci opts for the expressive and poetic qualities that are more associated with the work of Max Ophuls and Josef Von Sternberg.

International star Jean-Louis Trintignant (“A Man and a Woman,” “Z”) plays an aristocratic fascist, an intelligent coward–and repressed homosexual–who sacrifices everything he cares about, including his morals and best friend, because he wants the safety of normality and acceptability.

Stefania Sandrelli is cast as his corrupt, empty-headed wife, and Dominique Sanda plays the lesbian he falls for and would like to run away with.

“The Conformist” was controversial at the time due to its psycho-sexual approach to the fascist protagonist–and to history. However, what was beyond doubt was the film’s spectacular visuals and sensuous texture.

The Conformist is a triumph of feeling and of style–a lyrical, operatic style that leaves some indelible images for the viewers.

The remarkable technical values of the film were the product of ace cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who later worked with Coppola and won an Oscar Award for Best Cinematography for “Apocalypse Now.”

Judging by its polished production values, i’s hard to believe that the film had cost only $750,000.

Upon release, in 1970, the film immediately became an international hit, and established Bertolucci as one of the most brilliant directors of the international cinema. Bertolucci was nominated for the Adapted Screenplay Oscar, but lost to Ernst Tidyman’s screenplay for “The French Connection,” in a competitive year that also included the scripts for Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” Vittorio De Sica’s “The Gardens of the Finzi-Continis,” and Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show,” co-written by Larry McMurtry.

Bertolucci later directed “The Last Tango in Paris” (1972) with Marlon Brando, and “The Last Emperor,” which won the 1987 Oscar Awards for Best Picture and Best Director.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Screenplay (Adapted): Bernardo Bertolucci

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Adapted Screenplay Oscar was Ernest Tudyman for “The French Connection,” which swept most of the Oscars that year.