Radical flamethrower to Arthouse Apollo to Oscar-winning mastodon-driver to decadent mezzobrow doodler, Bernardo Bertolucci’s career has spanned over 40 years, a showy arc laid out at both Film Forum and MOMA this week, and one that may be a decade or so too long.
How sad that what started as fiery rad-Romanticism—essentially from 1964’s Before the Revolution to 1976’s 1900—eventually slid into “issue” chamber dramas and the relentless softcore dirty-old-man routine (from 1972’s Last Tango in Paris to his last, 2003’s The Dreamers). In the middle is The Conformist (1970), still a testimony to the erstwhile panache of international cinema. If you’re a fledgling, Bertolucci’s masterpiece—made when he was all of 29, and showing in a new print at both venues—will be the most revelatory experience you’ll have in a theater this year. Fleshing out novelist Alberto Moravia’s shadow-box between political compliance and personal shame, Bertolucci created the most arresting mise-en-scène ever concocted for any movie, set entirely in rainy city afternoons and indigo evenings. You can hardly help corresponding the film to seminal mood moments in your own life.
Told in timeline flea leaps, the story follows Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a would-be sophisticate lining up with Mussolini’s Fascists in the ’30s for his own, very private reasons—as the title makes clear, his is participatory politics as psychosocial dysfunction. Marcello’s ambitions toward “normalcy,” sexual and otherwise, lock on marriage (to the fabulously obnoxious Stefania Sandrelli) and on insinuating himself into the Party by framing his old university mentor (Enzo Tarascio) and the prof’s sexy bi wife (Dominique Sanda).
Overt and covert narratives aside, The Conformist is also an orgasm of coolness, ravishing compositions, camera gymnastics (the frame virtually squirms around, like Marcello), and atmospheric resonance. The actors vogue, Vittorio Storaro’s lens makes every street and room baroque, the Roman streets burn with gaslight, the dancehall bursts, the unforgettable Alpine roads lead to death and catastrophe.
Any career would seem to wilt after that, and Bertolucci’s did, if at first hitting a tantalizing stride with Last Tango’s menopausal waa-waas and the maddened, classical crescendo of 1900. But then the minor misfires began (Luna, Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man), followed by the majors—most prominently the dull “prestige” behemoth of The Last Emperor (1987), sanctified with a Best Picture Oscar and mostly forgotten since. The cascade continued with the Paul Bowles–bowdlerizing version of The Sheltering Sky (1990), the somewhat endearing fruitcake bakeoff of Little Buddha (1993), and the effort to get Liv Tyler’s panties finally off in Stealing Beauty (1996). Never did a Bertolucci movie feel deprived of passion and curiosity; even at his nadir, Bertolucci orchestrated to the rafters. But his relevance radiates from the end days of the New Wave era, when he was young and politically jacked in and still capable of transformative grace.