Bernardo Bertolucci is a filmmaker that I desperately want to like. His film The Last Emperor won a slew of awards in the late 80s, and was my first experience with the director, and I’ve wanted to see more from him ever since. Well, the list has given me a small handful of opportunities to do just that, and so far, said opportunities have been a little underwhelming. I’ve seen the hints and touches of a master filmmaker, but the films themselves haven’t been all that compelling, for various reasons. Still, I’ve been holding out hope, to the point that when Bertolucci’s The Conformist came up, I did what I normally don’t do with list films and went in relatively blind, wishing that the director would finally meet my expectations and give me something to truly make me a fan of his. It wasn’t at first, but by the time the film ended, I knew I had finally found a Bertolucci film to consolidate his legacy in my eyes, and make me proud to call myself a fan.
Jean-Louis Trintignant is Marcello Clerici, a clandestine employee of the Fascist secret police, who is sent on an assignment to assassinate his former college professor. While there with his wife (the operation being disguised as Clerici going on his honeymoon), he meets and falls in love with the professor’s young wife Anna, which complicates his assignment, especially when his handler follows him to Paris and begins to suspect Clerici of having doubts. I should say first off that this plot took a good chunk of runtime to finally make sense to me; the film starts off in medias res, and flashes back to how the characters got to the point the film starts, with additional flashbacks to show Clerici’s childhood and adult life. These flashbacks are never really telegraphed, or otherwise made apparent that the film is flashing back, so the first half hour or so of the film can be terribly confusing to a first time viewer. It does clear up significantly in the second half, and indeed I suspect that this is the type of film that will highly reward repeat viewings; having seen it through once, the beginning sections will begin to make more sense the second and third times around. Good thing that, even in my first viewing, the film was an absolute wonder to watch. Literally within the first three shots after the opening credits sequence, I knew I was in for a heck of a film. The artistry, panache, and skill involved in the framing and execution of the shots, as well as the use of color, all cried out that Bertolucci had finally arrived in the realm of the masters of cinema. Seriously, to call this one of the most visually striking and aesthetically amazing films to ever grace the screen is to massively undersell it. If, after my quest is completed, I were to try and sit down and come up with a list of the most visually impressive films that I’ve seen from the Book, I would not be surprised to find that The Conformist would either come out on top, or damn close to it. The rest of the film was up to par with this impossibly high standard as well, though the visuals were so amazing I didn’t really take notice of very much else about the film as I was watching it. The one qualm I did have was the overdubbing; yes, again with the overdubbing, but it was very noticeable, and it had a muffled reverberation that definitely signaled that the audio had been dubbed in a studio.
So, with all that I’ve said extolling the virtues of this one, why does it not get a higher rating? Honestly, it’s largely because I didn’t feel the film had done enough to warrant it. The film is fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but this was only my first viewing of it, and it was largely obfuscated through this viewing. As I said before, I believe my opinion of this one will increase after seeing it a couple more times or so, but I’d better let it simmer and ruminate first. It was a true visual treat, and as such it made me want to watch it again pretty much as soon as it was over, but I didn’t feel particularly up to it. Maybe another day. But still, what a day that will be.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10