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Anyone who has ever tried to write serious criticism knows that it is much easier to be negative than positive, a difficulty that increases exponentially with work that moves us beyond reason. Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist has that affect on me. It is one of a handful of films that have fundamentally influenced both my film making and my view of life. It is almost literally a part of me.

The reason for its hold on my imagination was neatly captured by a friend when I showed it to her. Unimpressed, she said in exasperation that the only reason I love it is for its style. She had a point, but given how important outward appearance and mannered distinction have been for my adult sensibility, it is not a minor matter to recognize when style is the primary appeal of a work. As advertising repeatedly attests, admiring and seeking to emulate panache can be just as fundamental as enjoying a story or identifying with a character.

Nor am I the only filmmaker to acknowledge the film’s influence and importance. Writer/director Paul Schrader, for example, cited The Conformist as a pivotal work in the development of production design, and acted on his belief by working with the movie’s designer, Ferdinando Scarfiotti, on three of his own films.

Perhaps that makes The Conformist a filmmaker’s film, but my friend was still missing the point in complaining that it is impossible to care about the unlikable characters, who are in many ways less important than the way they live. The film’s surfaces are so vivid, the evocation of the ’30s so wistfully elegant, the Fascist-era Art Deco accoutrements so casually perfect, Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s camerawork so richly fluid, even the tailoring so thoroughly fitting in both senses of the word that reservations about the characters and action evaporate.

Nonetheless, as central as visual distinction may be, The Conformist is neither a nostalgia trip nor just a series of flamboyant gestures executed with prodigious confidence. The power of style is intricately interwoven with the theme. For in this adaptation of Albert Moravia’s novel about Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a man tortured by inner demons who seeks a kind of absolution in fascism, surface embellishment covers the decadence and corruption, seducing the viewer as thoroughly as it does Marcello.

This richly textured environment combines with the repellent action to produce the film’s power. When, for example, Marcello allows Anna (Dominique Sanda), the woman he thinks he loves to be killed in a forest assassination, her final scream of horror is as much for him as it is for her own fate. The pines creaking in the winter wind, Anna’s shrieks, the distant gunshots of her assassins, the faceless agents going about their grim business amidst the shimmering, silvery beauty combine into a haunting poem of loss.

Yes, The Conformist is a triumph of style. In being so, however, it demonstrates just how deep surface appeal can be.

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