Film lovers have begun to look on the early '70s as the last golden age of Western film (the golden age of Asian film is on us right now). Those years are also known as the Before Lucas and Spielberg era. The French, with Godard and Truffaut (among many others), were in fine form. The too-brief German wave of Herzog, Fassbinder and Wenders had begun. Over here, Robert Altman was at his peak, we had crime films such as Chinatown and The Godfather and the films of studio pros such as Hal Ashby, Arthur Penn and Alan Pakula were unusually sophisticated.
A good number of these filmmakers are still at work today, but with the exception of Altman, the fire has gone out of their work. I don't know if we can blame all of that on Jaws and Star Wars, but there's little doubt that filmmaking was more adventurous then, as were film audiences.
Want proof? Consider that a new print of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist has been issued in part because five minutes have been restored that Paramount, its U.S. distributor, asked Bertolucci to cut for its American release. I say this not to rail against the censors, but to marvel that Paramount once released this work of unabashed cinematic art. With subtitles, no less.
The story Bertolucci told is in almost equal parts absorbing and hokey. Taken from an Alberto Moravia novel, The Conformist is a psychological study of Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a weak, decadent man in the Italy of the 1930s who allows himself to drift into fascism so that he can "be like everybody else." A haute bourgeois, he marries down into the vulgar middle class because he is ashamed of himself and the decadence he grew up in. Eager to finally become a real man, he agrees to assassinate a former philosophy professor who, from his exile in Paris, has become an embarrassing critic of Mussolini's regime.
The film feels dated now in its attempts to use Marcello's long-suppressed homosexuality as proof of his decadence. And it suggests that fascism itself is the result of decadent masculinity, ergo, if you're homosexual, you're attracted to fascism. But if that line of thought itself feels decadent, as if rotted through and ready to fall, the film that conveys it overflows with energy and passion.
In an attempt to capture this decadence, Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro infuse every scene with overripe colors, chiaroscuro lighting effects and constantly shifting camera angles. One of Storaro's shots -- of leaves blowing in front of the house of Marcello's drug addict mother -- was included in Visions of Light, but numerous other shots could have made that anthology. A lesbian tango scene in a working-class ballroom and the following overhead shot, in which we watch a sort of conga line circle around Marcello, who's too afraid and repressed to join in, clings to memory, as does a snowy mountainside betrayal scene, complete with a Godard-like jerkily edited chase scene.
This is perhaps a film more to be looked at than understood. Not that it's completely obtuse, only a little murky. How preferable this is to the arch-simplicities of Little Buddha. Talk about decadence -- how Bertolucci has fallen!
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-- David Theis
Screening Saturday, November 12 at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 13 at 7:30 p.m.
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. With Jean-Louis Trintignant, Pierre Clementi, and Dominique Sanda.