Paris, 1938 and Fascist agitator Marcello Clerici is ordered to assassinate his mentor, Professor Quadr, whose bisexual, socialist spouse, Anna has designs on Marcello's glamorous, but unloved wife, Giulia.
Adapted from Alberto Moravia's novel, this study of a man trapped between convention and rebellion could be called Bernardo Bertolucci's 5, as not only was it his fifth feature (the half being his contribution to Love and Anger, 1967), but it also revealed as much about its maker as it did its protagonist. No wonder Bertolucci once averred, `The Conformist is my most difficult film... because it is the simplest one.'
Ostensibly, it's a reworking of the structure and themes of Before The Revolution, in which the hero was torn politically (between Marxism and his bourgeois upbringing) and sexually (between marriage, incest and homosexuality) before accepting his fate. Jean-Louis Trintignant's Fascist foot soldier is similarly trapped: firstly by what he presumed to be the fatal ramifications of the childhood assault that caused him to repress his sexual identity, and secondly by his inability to respond to his attraction to Dominique Sanda, who he feels betrayed him in attempting to seduce Stefania Sandrelli during their scorching tango.
But this complex, multi-layered drama pits Bertolucci in a ethical-creative crisis of his own, as he establishes an aura of decadence he isn't quite able to denounce. Following his New Wave instincts, the action is elliptical and lyrical. But Bertolucci was as keen to recreate both the social and cinematic opulence of 1930s Paris.
Consequently, he and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro made extensive use of elaborate camera movements, vibrant colours, dramatic angles and delicate contrasts of light and shade consciously to evoke the stylisation of Josef von Sternberg, Max Ophuls and Orson Welles. Yet, perhaps Bertolucci's reluctance to pursue his natural Godardianism derived from the fact that Jean-Luc Godard had criticised his decision to accept Paramount coin to complete the picture? He certainly made his resentment known, however, by giving Enzo Tarascio (who is brutally murdered in the snowy woods) Godard's exact address and phone number.
Funny and frightening, seductive and satirical, ridiculous and tragic, this remains Bertolucci's greatest film.