Conformist, The (1970): Bertolucci’s Expressionist Masterpiece, Adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s 1951 Novel, Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Dominique Sanda

Bernardo Bertolucci directed The Conformist (Italian: Il conformista), a lavishly produced Freudian political melodrama, whose screenplay is based on Alberto Moravia’s 1951 novel, The Conformist.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

The Conformist poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

The film stars Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Gastone Moschin, Enzo Tarascio, Fosco Giachetti, José Quaglio, Dominique Sanda and Pierre Clémenti.

Bertolucci made use of the 1930s art and decor associated with the Fascist era, such as the drawing rooms and huge halls of the ruling elite.

In 1938 Paris, Marcello Clerici finalizes his preparations to assassinate his former college professor, Luca Quadri, leaving his fiancée Giulia in their hotel room. After receiving a telephone call, Marcello is picked up in a car driven by his superior, Special Agent Manganiello. The film often returns to the interior of this car, as the two of them pursue the professor and his wife.

A series of flashbacks depict Marcello discussing with his blind friend Italo his plans to marry, his awkward attempts to join the Fascist secret police, and his visits to his parents: a morphine-addicted mother at the family’s decaying villa, and his unhinged father at an insane asylum.

In a flashback, Marcello is seen as a boy humiliated by his schoolmates until he is rescued by Lino, a chauffeur. Lino offers to show him a pistol and then makes sexual advances towards Marcello, which he partially responds to before grabbing the pistol and shooting wildly into the walls and into Lino, then flees from the scene of what he assumes is a murder.

In another flashback, Marcello and Giulia discuss the necessity of his going to confession, even though he is atheist, in order for her Roman Catholic parents to allow them to marry.

Marcello admits to the priest to have committed grave sins, including his homosexual intercourse with and subsequent murder of Lino, premarital sex, and absence of guilt for these sins.  He thinks little of his new wife but craves the normality that traditional marriage with children is supposed to bring.

The priest is shocked but quickly absolves Marcello once he hears that he is working for the Fascist secret police, Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism.

Marcello is ordered to assassinate his old acquaintance and teacher, Professor Quadri, an outspoken anti-Fascist intellectual living in exile in France. Using his honeymoon as convenient cover, he takes Giulia to Paris where to carry out the mission.

While visiting Quadri he falls in love with Anna, the professor’s young wife, and pursues her.  Anna and her husband are aware of Marcello’s Fascist sympathies and the danger he presents, she responds to his advances and forms close attachment to Giulia, including sexual advances.

Giulia and Anna dress extravagantly and go to a dance hall with their husbands where Marcello’s commitment to the fascists is tested by Quadri. Manganiello is also at the dance hall, having been following Marcello and doubtful of his intentions. Marcello secretly returns the gun he has been given and gives Manganiello the location of Quadri’s country house where the couple plan to go.

Though Marcello has warned Anna not to go to the country with her husband and has apparently persuaded her to stay in Paris, she does make the car journey. On a deserted alpine road, Fascist agents attack and stab Quadri as Anna watches in horror. When the men turn their attention to her, she runs to the car behind for help. When Anna sees that the passenger is Marcello and realizes his betrayal, she begins to scream, before running into the woods to escape the men trying to kill her. Marcello watches without emotion as she is pursued and finally shot to death.

Manganiello is disgusted with what he sees as Marcello’s cowardice in not shooting Anna when she ran to their car.

In 1943, Marcello is a father of a child with Giulia, and apparently settled in a conventional life.

When the resignation of Benito Mussolini is announced, he is called by Italo for a meeting. While walking, they overhear conversation between two men; Marcello recognizes one of them as Lino whom he thought he had murdered. Marcello publicly denounces Lino as Fascist, homosexual and murderer of the Quadris.  In frenzy, he also denounces Italo as Fascist.

As a monarchist political crowd sweeps past, taking Italo with them, Marcello stares intently behind him at the young man Lino had been talking to.

The film demonstrates the psychology of conformism and fascism: Marcello Clerici is a bureaucrat, cultivated and intellectual but largely dehumanized by intense need to be ‘normal’ and to belong to whatever is the current dominant socio-political group. He grew up in upper class, dysfunctional family, and he suffered a major childhood sexual trauma and gun violence episode in which he long believed (erroneously) that he had committed murder.

He accepts an assignment from Benito Mussolini’s secret police to assassinate his former mentor, living in exile in Paris. In Trintignant’s characterization, Clerici is willing to sacrifice his values in order to lead “normal life.”

The political philosopher Takis Fotopoulos has suggested that The Conformist offers a “portrait of this psychological need to conform and be ‘normal’ at the social level, in general, and the political level, in particular.”

While using Freudian psychoanalysis, The Conformist does not offer an explanation of fascism or an indictment of it. Ultimately, Bertolucci’s poetic talents and consummate technical skills dominated over the ideological intent that’s contained within the narrative.

Widely praised as a visual masterpiece, the film was shot by Vittorio Storaro, who used rich colors, authentic wardrobe of the 1930s, and fluid camera movement. The cinematography suggests Clerici’s inability to conform with “normal” reality: the reality of the time is “abnormal.”

Bertolucci’s style synthesizes expressionism and “fascist” film aesthetics. It’s been compared with classic German films of the 1920s and 1930s, such as in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

An expressionist masterpiece, The Conformist, which displayed Bertolucci’s rich, poetic, and baroque style, has been acclaimed for its sumptuous visuals and extravagant, artful cinematography.

Space is used imaginatively, as in a scene in the Palazzo dei Congressi, suggesting how essential it is to understand the history of the EUR district in Rome and its deep ties with fascism. The locations included Gare d’Orsay and Paris, France; Sant’ Angelo Bridge and the Colosseum, both in Rome.

The image of blowing leaves influenced similar scene in Coppola’s The Godfather, Part II (1974).

Trintignant learned his Italian-language lines phonetically; he was later dubbed over by another actor, Sergio Graziani.

The scene in which Dominique Sanda’s character is chased through the snowy woods after her husband has been murdered, is echoed with mood, lighting and setting in the third-season episode of The Sopranos, “Pine Barrens,” directed by Steve Buscemi.

The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on July 1, 1970. However, due to the row over Michael Verhoeven’s anti-war film o.k., the festival was closed down 3 days later, and no prizes were awarded.

In the U.S., the film screened at the New York Film Fest on  September 18, 1970, and was given a limited release in New York and Los Angeles in April 1971, and Chicago and Washington D.C. in May 1971.

The first American release was trimmed by 5 minutes compared to the Italian release. The missing scene, which features blind people dancing, was restored in the 1996 reissue.

Released on DVD by Paramount on December 5, 2006, this edition includes the original theatrical version (111 minutes); The Rise of The Conformist: The Story, the Cast featurette; Shadow and Light: Filming The Conformist featurette; The Conformist: Breaking New Ground featurette.

In 2011, the Cineteca di Bologna commissioned a 2K restoration of The Conformist, supervised by Storaro himself (and approved by Bertolucci), which screened in the Cannes Classics series on May 11, 2011, in conjunction with the presentation of honorary Palme d’Or to Bertolucci.

In 2014, the digital restoration was released theatrically by Kino Lorber in North America, and released on Blu-ray by Rarovideo USA on November 25, 2014.

Critical Status:

National Society of Film Critics Awards: Best Cinematography, Vittorio Storaro; Best Director, Bernardo Bertolucci

Jean-Louis Trintignant as Marcello Clerici
Pasquale Fortunato as 13-year-old Marcello
Stefania Sandrelli as Giulia
Gastone Moschin as Special Agent Manganiello
Dominique Sanda as Anna Quadri, the Minister’s Lover, and the Ventimiglia Prostitute
Enzo Tarascio as Professor Luca Quadri
Fosco Giachetti as The Colonel
José Quaglio as Italo Montanari
Pierre Clémenti as Pasqualino “Lino” Semirama
Yvonne Sanson as Giulia’s Mother
Milly as Marcello’s Mother
Giuseppe Addobbati as Antonio Clerici (Marcello’s Father)
Antonio Maestri as Don Lattanzi (The Confessor)
Christian Aligny as Raoul

Dubbing voices (Italian version)

Sergio Graziani as Marcello Clerici
Rita Savagnone as Anna Quadri
Arturo Dominici as The Colonel
Giuseppe Rinaldi as Italo Montanari
Lydia Simoneschi as Giulia’s Mother


Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Screenplay by Bertolucci, based on The Conformist by Alberto Moravia
Produced by Maurizio Lodi-Fe
Cinematography Vittorio Storaro
Edited by Franco Arcalli
Music by Georges Delerue

Production companies: Mars Film Produzione; Marianne Productions; Maran Film

Distributed by Paramount Pictures

Release dates: July 1, 1970 (BIFF); October 22, 1970 (Italy, US)

Running time: 108 minutes
Budget $750,000
France:  570,149 admissions