Before The Last Emperor, even before Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci's movies were known for their decadent opulence, their opulent decadence. But in those early years, Bertolucci was also a member of Italy's Communist Party, so the movies had their share of capital-P politics. One was even called Before the Revolution, although its storyline Ã?' a young Italian Communist has an affair with his aunt Ã?' would seem to suggest that life can't always be explained by dialectical materialism. For Bertolucci, the personal was political; more important, the political was personal. Or maybe a better word would be "sexual." Take Fascism, which Italy succumbed to when Benito Mussolini came to power and drove the country into World War II. Maybe the whole thing had to do with repressed homosexuality, the love that dare not speak its name.
That's basically the message of 1970's The Conformist, which is being shown this weekend at the UW Cinematheque (Saturday, April 22, 4070 UW Vilas Hall, 7:30 p.m.) in a sparkling new print. Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Bertolucci's original choice for the Marlon Brando role in Last Tango, The Conformist offers a psychosexual tour of the Fascist mind as represented by one Marcello Clerici, a budding intellectual who would do anything to avoid standing out in a crowd. Easier said than done, given Marcello's background. His father was/is insane. His mother was/is a drug addict. And Ã?' the Rosebud that explains everything and nothing Ã?' when he was a young boy, Marcello was lured into the family chauffeur's bedroom, where unspeakable things happened. Most of us would go a little crazy after such an episode. Marcello went in the opposite direction. "I'm going to build a life that's normal," he announces early on in the movie.
But what constitutes a normal life in a Fascist state? For Marcello, it involves marrying a respectable-family beauty without a thought in her head, fingering a former professor holed up in Paris and, when that is deemed insufficient to prove his party loyalty, participating in the professor's assassination. It also involves, among other things, sex with the professor's wife (Dominique Sanda, surrendering to the camera's loving gaze), sex with his own wife (Stefania Sandrelli, playing dumb very intelligently) and the possibility, dangled before us like a dog biscuit, of sex between the professor's wife and his own. (Take that, Karl Marx.) What it lacks in sense The Conformist makes up for in sensuality Ã?' Vittorio Storaro's sumptuous cinematography, Georges Delerue's wistful score, Bertolucci's elegant tracking shots. And there's a breathtakingly beautiful scene in a snow-swept woods where the personal and the political draw blood.