By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “The Conformist,” Paramount]
Forget the Bernardo Bertolucci we’ve come to know since the ’80s the suave, literate Parmesan who has been far too focused on disrobing his actresses and who seems, keeping in mind the box office lessons of “Last Tango in Paris,” to think having sex, or trying to have sex, or deciding when to have sex, is a grown-up narrative idea. (This goes even for Oscar-winner “The Last Emperor,” if not 1993’s “Little Buddha,” which is on an astral plain all its own.) His international rep would be many steps closer to the top shelf today if, in fact, he’d stopped when he was ahead, at 35, with seven features already under his belt, two of which “The Conformist” (1970) and “1900” (1976) are rapturous masterpieces.
At least two other early films “Partner” (1968) and “The Spider’s Stratagem” (also 1970!) would be peaks in another European director’s canon. But the eminence of “The Conformist,” in particular, is unassailable. Fleshing out novelist Alberto Moravia’s shadowbox of political compliance and personal shame with arguably the most bewitching mise en scène ever concocted for any movie, set entirely in rainy Euro-city afternoons and indigo evenings, the movie follows Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a would-be sophisticate lining up with Mussolini’s Fascists in the 30s for his own, very private reasons as the title makes clear, this is participatory politics seen as psychosocial dysfunction. Being “normal” is an ideal the fiercely closeted Marcello talks about a lot, his desire to belong spiraling out to include marriage (to the fabulously pliable and obnoxious Stefania Sandrelli) and insinuating himself into the Party by framing up his old university mentor (Enzo Tarascio) and, by extension, the prof’s sexy, testy trophy wife (Dominique Sanda). “The Conformist” is both a bludgeoning indictment of fascistic follow-the-leader and an orgasm of coolness, ravishing compositions, camera gymnastics (the frame virtually squirms around, like Marcello) and atmospheric resonance. The actors vogue, Vittorio Storaro’s magical lens transforms every street and room into a catalytic baroque-ness, the clothes grip the characters like iconic mantles, the leaves blow with the roving camera across Marcello’s mother’s seedy estate. What a movie for a young man (only 29 at the time) to have made.
“1900” is a more troublesome creature, a true behemoth that runs over five hours and suffers the handicaps of being politically ironic, internationally cast (with multiple dubbing versions), more rueful than factual about class war, messy and subject to distributors’ whimsical cuts all over the world. But for those of us who care less about neatness than about bellying up to an endless banquet of melodrama, history, revolutionary fervor, food, sadism, Brueghel tableaux, war, peasant partying, and Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu and Dominique Sanda nude (yes, together!), “1900” is a savorable experience, with a poetic heart and a swoony Ennio Morricone score that rescue it from kitsch. The long-awaited Paramount DVD sets for both films come clotted with several making-of featurettes each.
That’s your weekend right there, so you’d have no pressing need to rent “Little Miss Sunshine” and see it all over again, except perhaps to suss out if in fact it’s the dependie wonder-comedy it’s been cracked up to be, or if the backlash against the acclaim and the stunning box office (more than 1000% return on budget, in a year when “M:I:III” didn’t manage to break even) is more on the money. But maybe you will in any case, knowing as you do that hype is prone to cut on the back-swing, and that Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s movie is modest in conception eccentric family hits the road to participate in that most revolting of American rituals, the preadolescent beauty pageant but executed with consummate wit and Swiss timing. It might boil down to the cast: give pros like Alan Arkin, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear open road, and they will race like the devil.
“The Conformist (Extended Edition)” and “1900 (Special Collector’s Edition)” (Paramount Home Video) are now available on DVD; “Little Miss Sunshine” (20th Century Fox) will be available on DVD December 19th.