ESSENTIAL

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This movie is one of cinema’s most dazzling exercises in style — in art direction, in lighting, in cinematography, in choreographing movement for and by the camera, in creating seductive cinematic spaces.

Paradoxically all this aesthetic beauty serves a grim and depressing story.  The film says at once that the world is a shabby, brutal place and also a place of endless sensual enchantment.  It’s hard to know if this was an exercise in irony on Bertolucci’s part or a symptom of schizophrenia, exposing the divided heart of a man torn between rigorous political commitment and unmediated artistic self-indulgence.

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Not that it matters when you’re watching the film — its contradictions are dissolved in its cinematic virtuosity and its irresistible erotic undertows, because these are the things that ultimately define the film, that ultimately defined Bertolucci at the time he made it, in spite of himself or not.

I hesitate to call it a great movie but it has some of the greatest passages in any movie ever made — passages which by themselves justify and exalt the medium beyond judgement or praise.

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