Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) is one of the more thematically interesting and artfully shot selections on the Spy 100 list. In fascist Italy in the days leading up to World War II, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a humorless, apolitical man who — in order to shed a dark past and the stigma of his wealthy, disfunctional family — becomes a conformist. He marries empty-headed, beautiful young Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) and joins the fascists, working for the secret police. Then Clerici is given a mission: to travel to Paris, where he’s to assassinate Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), a former teacher of his whose anti-fascist leanings are considered troublesome to Mussolini’s regime. Clerici coldly folds this assignment into his honeymoon, but soon finds himself attracted to Quadri’s young, tough, left-leaning wife Anna (Dominique Sanda). Clerici’s new fascist allegiance and desire to fit in with the people in power is challenged by the Quadris’ liberal tendencies, and Anna’s carefree, implied bisexuality — “abnormalities” that dredge up Clerici’s powerful internal struggle with being different in a world torn apart by group-think ideology.
Despite the outward political trappings, The Conformist feels less like a spy movie than a historical character study, using the upside-down world of mid-20th century Europe as a lens through which to view one man’s all-consuming personal battle to reconcile his sense of self with the pressures of societal uniformity surrounding him. The story-telling is alinear and challenging, but the pieces all add up to a quite satisfying, pointed ending. The direction and cinematography are top-notch; Bertolucci’s use of color and his shot composition are striking and gorgeous, and in the late-going there’s a sequence of real, gut-wrenching suspense. But for all its attractive scenery and twisty story points, this is a film about identity, and Trintignant brings off an intriguing performance of repressed inscrutability, both sympathetic and contemptible. The final, haunting image of him sends a focused, powerful message. Excellent film.