The Conformist, 1900

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Release date: Dec. 5, 2006

One of the great triumphs of stylistic filmmaking, Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Conformist," has been released by Paramount as an Extended Edition (retail $14.99). The presentation runs 111 minutes, restoring a sequence, unseen since the 1970 New York Film Festival, in which a group of blind people is holding a bachelor party of sorts for the hero. The film's running time with the scene restored is understood to be 2 hours, and the time discrepancy is likely a result of transferring the film from a European video master with a different frame-per-second ratio (the LD we reviewed in Sept 1984 ran 108 minutes).

Jean-Louis Trintignant portrays a member of a Fascist organization in '30s Italy who volunteers to assassinate his former philosophy professor while visiting Paris on his honeymoon. Although it is never stated explicitly, he apparently once had an affair with the professor's young wife, and he rekindles the romance when the four meet ostensibly to celebrate old times. Dominique Sanda plays the professor's wife and Stefania Sandrelli is the bride. Throughout the film, characters are blocked in unnaturally formal ways, but Vittorio Storaro's cinematography was and remains an exhilarated unleashing of manipulated light and perspective. Paced by Georges Delerue's playfully intoxicating musical score, the film's images and movement represent a pinnacle in technical conception and execution, and yet are consummately integrated with the narrative and performances, so there is never time to feel that the direction is showy or distracting. The film should not work at all. The story's thematic core is that the hero does bad things to overcompensate for the fear that he is gay, which is contradicted by the lighthearted tone much of the film sustains. The romantic couplings between the hero and the professor's wife have an obnoxious male-fantasy rush to their exposition, and, in fact, every moment Sanda is on the screen is an unnaturally idealized vision of desire. The political symbolism of the narrative is so obvious that a blind Fascist character is named "Italo" and the hero speaks with misty reverence for the professor's lecture on what was clearly a day-one introduction to Plato and his Cave. There are many other moments that can be picked out as absurd or ridiculous -- Sanda also appears in the film, briefly, as two other characters -- but every flaw or every shortcoming the film could possibly have is smoothed over and erased by the film's style, in the same way that paint fills in crevices and cracks to bring conformity to an uneven surface. The Plato lecture becomes a brilliant metaphor for the execution of film; Sanda, counterpointed by Sandrelli, translates the abstract beauty of Storaro's compositions into human terms; the film's lighthearted tone undercuts any heavyhanded metaphorical imperatives; and the story is just ambiguous enough, poking around the hero's psyche but keeping some stones deliberately unturned, that it leaves a viewer pondering its mysteries and possibilities, even after dozens of viewings. Most importantly, the viewer is overwhelmed by the sensuous construction of the film itself, and from there, it does not take much to become lost in Cinema forever. At least, that's what happened to us.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, windowboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.66:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The color transfer is excellent. There are points where the heavy colors in Storaro's lighting could not be entirely accommodated by the film's production budget, but those moments aside, the image is sharp and colors are precise. The monophonic sound has a little background noise but is workable. A joint Italian-French production with Italian and French stars, the movie has no natural language. The Italian track is generally the preferred one, although the French track also works fairly well. The English track is less satisfying, as it just doesn't feel lyrical enough to match the way the film flows. The DVD also has a Spanish track and a Portuguese track, and optional English, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles. There is a fairly good 39-minute retrospective interview with Bertolucci and Storaro, but while the contributions of several other artists are discussed, Delerue's work curiously passes unmentioned.

Combining the idealism of a Soviet epic with the sex and violence of the decadent West, Bertolucci's ambitious near-masterpiece, "1900," is also available from Paramount, as a Two-Disc Collector's Edition (retail $19.99), with Part One appearing on the first platter and Part Two on the second. The first half of Part One, in which Burt Lancaster portrays a wealthy Italian landowner and patriarch, and Sterling Hayden is his opposite number, so to speak, among the peasants working his land, is as magnificent and glorious a piece of filmmaking as you will ever see, with Storaro's cinematography evoking Old Master paintings and the depiction of life on the isolated estate being a worthy microcosm for the world's disparity of wealth then, now and always.

The film's brilliance dulls a bit, however, when Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu take over the film as the respective grandchildren of the owner and the peasant, as most of the film is then about their struggle with the rise of Fascism in Italy and its subsequent displacement by communist aspirations. The film takes an absolute dive early in the Part Two, when Donald Sutherland, playing the overseer and local Fascist official, swings a young boy around crazily and smashes the boy's head against a wall, four times. Even on subsequent viewings, when the sequence no longer turns the stomach, the whole movie seems to unravel at that point, or crack apart, actually, like the boy's skull.

Paramount has released Bertolucci's first cut of the film, with its graphic nudity intact, running 315 minutes, about an hour longer than the version released previously on home video and presented theatrically in America. It works much better than the shorter version, and Part Two, in particular, is more coherent. Sutherland's overplayed obnoxiousness, however, still disrupts the film's realism and breaks its mood to a certain extent. Depardieu is the most appealing of the three stars, but his character generally just reacts to what is going on around him, with little interior life. De Niro's character is a wet noodle, something he has never been able to play well and is at a particular loss here amidst the polyglot cast. Sanda is also featured, and is very good in some sequences and somewhat over-mannered in others, although visually, she is always transfixing.

The film, again, has no real original language. Whether you listen to the English track, the French track or the Italian track, some of the actors are dubbed, and there are times when the lip movements do not line up perfectly even when a performer is speaking his own language. Hayden and Lancaster are worth hearing in English, and Sanda's accented English matches the foreignness of her character effectively, but the bulk of the movie works best in Italian (it is how you should show it to your friends if they've never seen the film before), even though you lose a mild dimensionality in some passages from Ennio Morricone's score, because only the English track is stereophonic. The dubbing improves De Niro's flat line readings and allows you to concentrate more on his reasonably animated expressions. It also eliminates the weaknesses of Depardieu's bland English dubbing, while Sutherland, on the other hand, is more effectively subdued. There are optional English subtitles.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. Some darker sequences are heavily grainy, and the image is usually a little soft unless a scene is set in bright sunlight, but for the most part, the transfer is satisfying and does justice to Storaro's outstanding cinematography. Although spread over a half century, the film is structured atmospherically with a Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring motif, which also reflects the emotional lives of the characters. In any cases, each seasonal expression is beautifully executed, from warm summer colors to a de facto black and white in some of the winter scenes.

In addition to Part Two, the second platter contains 27 minutes of nice retrospective interviews with Bertolucci and Storaro. Bertolucci says that he had contemplated making a sequel, but that neither he nor Italy is that politically motivated any more, a feeling you absorb almost instinctively by the drawn out and unstirring nature of the finale.

The complete database of Doug Pratt's DVD-video reviews is available at dvdlaser.com. A sample copy of the DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter can be obtained by calling (516) 594-9304.
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