Beauty and Fascism: The Conformist Returns in a Stunning 4K Restoration
Issue 10, Volume 113
Widely considered to be one of the most beautiful films ever created, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 adaptation of the Alberto Moravia novel The Conformist (1951) has been re-released in 4K restoration. Over 50 years after its original release, Bertolucci’s original film was processed by the Italian film company Minerva Pictures to create a stunning new version of the picture with additional English subtitles, enhanced color grading of Vittorio Storaro’s timeless cinematography, and remastered recordings of the original score by Georges Delerue. The remaster is set to tour cinemas across the country this spring, starting in the New York City Film Forum theater.
The Conformist serves as a time capsule of 1930s fascist Italy. The protagonist, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), is a member of the secret police who yearns for a regular life. Marcello attempts to move toward normalcy by marrying his fiancée, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), but when he is assigned a mission to assassinate his former professor (Enzo Tarascio), he has to confront the morality of his occupation. On the mission in Paris, Marcello falls in love with the professor’s wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda), an anti-fascist aware of Marcello’s purpose but forward in her pursual of both him and Giulia. Marcello’s ineptitude leads to his capture by the secret police in Paris, and he is forced to watch as the professor and Anna are brutally murdered. Years later, Marcello’s life collapses with the fascist government and he finds himself alone once more.
As the title suggests, conformity is a central theme in this socio-political noir. In a world where deviance is deadly, Marcello’s character is “The Conformist.” His seemingly neutral decisions in the face of injustice demonstrate the film’s claim that conformity is dangerous, not because of the actions taken, but because of those not taken. For Marcello, fascism functions as a convenient path to conformity, which shields him from a childhood fear of rejection. Marcello rides the conformist wave so closely that other fascists comment on his strict adherence to principle, including his repressed sexuality. Marcello has a bourgeois wife but is generally uninterested in being intimate with her; he has closed off his sexuality and justifies it with his following of fascist ideology. To contrast with his character, the viewers are introduced to Mussolini, the hypocritical epitome of fascism, whose desk is adorned by a prostitute.
As a foil to Marcello, Anna is an independent woman who is uninhibited in her sexuality. In addition to being a former prostitute, she flirts with Giulia throughout the movie, which becomes undeniable during the climactic dance scene between the two of them. Their dance is complex yet nonchalant, tracked by impeccable camera movements that capture the fluidity of their routine. The scene simultaneously conveys their awareness that they are breaking social boundaries—the heterosexual couples around them are shocked—as well as their indifference to restrictive norms. In a heteronormative society, queerness is inherently anti-conformist, and thus conflicts with the strict uniformity of fascism.
The movie’s message would not be as impactful without Storaro’s visuals. An authentic wardrobe from the era was used in filming, immersing the viewer in the time period through jazzy gowns and eye-catching accessories, most notably a white fox fur boa complete with two heads, tails, and corresponding sets of legs. Color, set design, and composition unite the thematic components, creating a distinction between the fascist state and the vibrant life of the non-conformist. The film opens with a shot of empty rooms in bland whites, blues, and grays: the color palette one might find in a corporate office building. When Marcello visits the professor in Paris, his world suddenly becomes vivid. Warm tones of oranges, yellows, and browns infuse rooms packed with patterned fabrics, charming furniture, and eclectic trinkets. But it is the composition of each shot that brings these elements to life. In the dictatorship’s government building, Marcello looks insignificant through the emphasis on fascist architecture’s minimalistic interior design. However, in the professor’s home, each shot is framed around the characters, not the negative space between them, making the anti-fascists seem more inviting. Light and shadow play an important role in this distinction as well. Heavy shadows are frequently used to create the chiaroscuro effects characteristic of neo-noir films, shrouding fascism in darkness and intellectualism in glowy enlightenment. The visual distinction between the two ideologies enhances the film’s anti-conformist message.
Bertolucci and Storaro’s artful direction in The Conformist set the standards for modern cinematography. Many directors have credited Bertolucci as an influence in their work; for example, Francis Ford Coppola cites Bertolucci as a major inspiration for the aesthetic composition and camera techniques in his movies. The Conformist also remains influential as a triumph of the neo-noir genre. Though films in the subcategory do not necessarily use the classic grayscale color scheme, neo-noir movies explore similar themes of alienation and morality, often using dark lighting and precise tracking shots to create a brooding mood. While The Conformist was not the first of its kind, it does serve as a true microcosm of the genre through its themes and direction alike. The way Bertolucci paints the government as an oppressive force has become a common trope in neo-noir films like Blade Runner (1982) and Chinatown (1974).
An indictment of fascism and the suffocating nature of conformity, Bertolucci’s work endures today as a benchmark in film history. Despite having a budget of only $750,000, the film is wonderfully directed with a gorgeous and symbolic color scheme and engaging practical effects. Moravia’s writing is transcendent, but Storaro’s cinematography is the true heart of the film. In the new 4K restoration, Bertolucci’s masterpiece is richer in definition than ever before; every frame is enriched by the plot, and the visual storytelling crafts an intricate narrative that thoroughly lives up to its title as the most beautiful film in history.