Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) appears strong and confident, but beneath this façade is a confused and somewhat weak man who has, for years, tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. We first see Marcello on a long journey; it is the late 1930s in Rome, and he has recently become part of a group of secret police-type activists under Mussolini’s rule. Then the film cuts to 1917, when young Marcello is picked up by a friendly driver who promises to show him a gun. When the driver attempts to molest the boy, Marcello accidentally shoots him and leaves him for dead. Assuming he has committed murder, the boy keeps the incident to himself, and he evolves into a tense and uncomfortable adult who strives to hide his shame at all costs.
As an adult, Marcello spends his days monitoring and reporting on enemies of the Fascist regime. He spends his nights courting a simple middle-class woman, Guilia (Stefani Sandrelli), whom he has chosen as his fiancée. When the lovers travel to Paris, the Fascists demand that Marcello find and kill one of his former teachers, Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), who has fled to Paris. Quadri’s beguiling wife (Dominique Sanda) befriends Guilia and Marcello, inadvertently allowing Marcello to get closer to his target. When the two men confront each other, Quadri forces Marcello to confront his conflicted nature.
When Bernardo Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC set out to film The Conformist, they had just completed The Spider’s Stratagem and wanted to try something “more adult,” according to Bertolucci. The Conformist’s dark allegorical narrative provided ample material for both artists as well as production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, and their collaboration created a particularly elaborate visual landscape. Storaro envisioned the film in two halves, Rome and Paris, and he strove to give each distinct tones. In Rome, Marcello’s world has soft, muted colors and a noticeably sharp use of lighting contrasts and shadows, which appear to entrap him. In Paris, where Marcello begins to change, light is less contrasty and warmer, richer colors begin to appear in the scheme.
Paramount Home Entertainment recently released The Conformist on DVD for the first time, and the presentation is the original 111-minute European cut of the film. The image transfer is an excellent rendering of Storaro’s work. The light balance always appears correct, with incredibly solid colors and excellent contrast. In one of the more noticeable flourishes of color, when a street vendor displays her basket of violets, the glowing pastel color nearly pops on the screen; it feels entirely organic without a trace of chroma noise or pixelation.
The monaural audio is solid, but the dialogue is occasionally distracting because of the Italian practice of post sychronization that was common when the film was made. This is true of the English, Italian, French and Portuguese audio tracks that accompany the presentation.
The special-features section offers nearly 40 minutes of interviews with Bertolucci and Storaro, divided into three segments: “The Rise of The Conformist: The Story, The Cast,” “Shadow and Light: Filming The Conformist,” and “The Conformist: Breaking New Ground.” Produced by Laurent Bouzereau, these segments present the artists talking candidly about making the film and how it changed their careers and their extraordinary partnership. Both men offer excellent points about the film and its creation, making this supplement a rich and worthwhile addition to the DVD.
The Conformist’s grim, occasionally surreal tone has often been imitated and is certainly a stylistic landmark in Italian cinema. Bertolucci rightfully praises Storaro and editor Franco Arcalli for helping to give the film its unique expressionist and elliptical tone, which in turn helps convey Marcello’s inner conflicts. The tragic, solemn journey Marcello takes, both literally and figuratively, is one of cinema’s most memorable and complex. This excellent new DVD is the perfect way to experience this classic on home screens.