Movies at the Mudd: “The Conformist

Corey Lehnert

Finding the film “The Conformist” as I browsed through the library stacks last week, I hoped that I had stumbled across an old-fashioned spy film, offering me an easy out in my job to review obscure movies in the Mudd’s film collection.
I later realized, however, that if there is one criterion in being allowed placement in the same shelves that hold “8 1/2” and “Citizen Kane,” it is that a film must challenge the viewer in some unorthodox way.
Granted, after also discovering Steven Seagal’s “On Deadly Ground” I surmised that the unorthodox aspects of any film need not be very great, but suffice it to say that while other spy films were busy applying to state schools and listening to Nickelback, “The Conformist” was trying to choose between Lawrence and Beloit as it hummed along to Belle and Sebastian.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 film “The Conformist” offers a different take on the spy film by spying on the life of Marcello Clerici, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, a bright and successful young man living in 1930s fascist Italy.
Despite Marcello’s obvious opportunities to excel in Italian society, he desires nothing but to be ordinary. This tendency toward conformity, however, is not the product of goodwill but an attempt to repress an undesirable past.
Marcello’s struggle between present and former selves finally boils over when he takes on the job of assassinating an expatriate professor living in Paris.
Bertolucci’s film does little to hide its Freudian and philosophical underpinnings — Marcello pondering Plato’s cave with unabashed shadow-on-the-wall symbolism might leave one with a Freshman Studies flashback — and it is exactly this which might be its weakness.
The dense philosophical aspects in parts of the film would be fine if they added a clear insight to the storyline, but their ambiguous messages left me puzzled even after a second viewing.
The film’s few troubles, however, are quickly forgotten thanks to its inventive cinematography which proves as necessary to the film as the main character. Cinematographer Vitorio Storaro’s dynamic use of color, light and camera angles allows Marcello’s inner thoughts to take physical form on the screen, often affecting the environment more than Marcello himself.
“The Conformist,” though at times too dense for its own good, is a very engaging and ambitious film. Those looking for a nonconformist spy movie should consider picking it up at the Mudd Library.”The Conformist,” directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Unrated.