By the time Bernardo Bertolucci made 1970's The Conformist, he'd practically become Italy's top pop poet, fusing the neo-realist tradition with Michelangelo Antonioni's washed-out ennui, Federico Fellini's fanciful cinematic bravura, and the fevered pulp visions of Sergio Leone and Dario Argento. Throughout the '60s, Bertolucci made a succession of diverse shorts, features, and documentaries that added up to one long, stylish, semi-autobiographical look at the radical impulses of the young bourgeoisie. The Conformist, a moody thriller far more abstract than Bertolucci's earlier genre pieces, was his crowning achievement, crystallizing his central thematic question: How can an individual exert his will when he doesn't know his own mind?
Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as a fascist assassin reflecting on his choices as he travels across Italy to bump off a beloved former teacher. On the surface, Trintignant believes he's just battling to restore Italian order, but subconsciously, he's erasing the part of himself that entertains socially undesirable thoughts. Bertolucci smashes together Freudian analysis and Plato's "Prisoners Of The Cave" analogy into an oblique character study, but any excessively fussy intellectualizing is excused by the film's expressively cinematic style. Both Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro were just about to turn 30 when they made The Conformist, and their young-man cockiness manifests in quirky angles and rich colors, dazzling the viewer with nearly every shot and scene.
The Conformist clearly influenced Francis Ford Coppola's visual approach to The Godfather (if only in a narrow way); and after Bertolucci cemented his cinema superstar status with Last Tango In Paris, he used his clout to make his own Godfather-style epic, 1900. Gerard Depardieu and Robert De Niro co-star as, respectively, a peasant and a nobleman, whose stories intertwine in Italy through two world wars and various economic highs and lows, all taking place over five hours of screen time. The story is almost too small for Bertolucci's sprawling approach, and the ungainliness of his international cast stifles both the dialogue and the performances. Upon its release in 1977, 1900 became an infamous flop.
But seen with diminished expectations, 1900 is just fine: a well-plotted history play studded with artful sequences and Bertolucci's particular brand of earthiness, bordering on vulgarity. 1900 may seem too conventional compared to the blazing fire of Bertolucci's previous films, but as the film rambles toward its beautifully symbolic final shot of a man on train tracks, it takes its place at the center of the director's career-long, fragmentary 20th-century mosaic.
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Key features: Extensive Laurent Bouzereau-directed interviews with Bertolucci on both, eliciting Bertolucci's insight that The Conformist was his first film to be drawn from "life plus cinema," and that 1900 was partly intended to bridge the gap between the Soviet Union and the U.S.