Uncanny Beauty: Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist

A dozen films by famed Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci will be screened during a month long retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The line-up includes Last Tango in Paris, The Little Buddha, The Last Emperor, and The Conformist, which Alessandro Carrera, director of Italian Studies at the University of Houston, admits is his favorite. "The film is set in the 1920s when Benito Mussolini had already established his power," Carrera tells us. "It's a very complex story about a man who wants to join the Fascist party because he wants to conform to the norm. The protagonist thinks that he's gay and he doesn't want to be, he wants to be the same as everyone else. He becomes a secret agent for the party and they ask him to go to Paris and shoot his old professor who is an anti-Fascist."

The Conformist is important for several reasons, says Carrera, including the way it portrays the Fascist era. "The way Fascist architecture, fashion, art is included in the film, it makes you look at this historical period in a different way. Other films about the period were in black-and-white. All of the sudden we see this Bertolucci film in color. They are extremely beautiful colors and so you find some uncanny beauty in the ugliness of this time. The film is troubling in a way, because you see the violence, the repression, and the intolerance of the Fascist period, and it's beautiful."

It's also important because it deals with one of Bertolucci's favorite themes; ambiguity. The Conformist includes a famous dance scene between two women. It's a sexy and elegant scene. "Bertolucci often deals with ambiguities - moral, political, sexual. Nothing is ever black and white, there's always some elements of gray to his characters and his stories. In almost each of his films, there's a moment of sexual ambiguity.

The film also touches on father-son relationships, another Bertolucci touchstone. "Many of his films deal with overcoming your father, or even physically getting rid of him. The problem in The Conformist is 'how can I be myself when I have such an imposing father?' That's also the story for The Little Buddha and The Last Emperor. In both cases you have young men who grew up in very protected environments and then they are thrown in the world. In a way, history is a big father that needs to be killed. It can be Fascism, it can be the Chinese empire.

"Most of the personal relationships in the films by Bertolucci are obsessive and claustrophobic. These are people who wanted to escape from their families, they wanted to escape from social duties, they wanted to escape from history. This is the story of Last Tango in Paris and of The Dreamers."

The Conformist screens at 7 p.m. on September 14 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. The Nonconformist: A Bernardo Bertolucci Retrospective continues through September 30. For information, visit the museum's website or call 713-639-7515. $5 to $7.

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