Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant) wants to be "normal," lead a normal life with a petite bourgeoisie wife: "She's all bed and kitchen" (Stephania Sandrelli) and all the accoutrements that that life brings with it: home, children, and a good job. But this is 1938 Italy and the ultimate in normalcy is being a fascist and so Marcello gets a job in a Fascist investigation bureau. His job is to find and assassinate any and all anti-fascists. At the age of 34, Marcello can see the light at the end of the tunnel that will take his life to what he considers normal: a mantra that he repeats over and over throughout director Bernardo Bertolucci's very fine film.
Marcello has spent his life in hiding from both his past as well as his present. He is wound up tightly, quiet, solemn, serious and seemingly not aware of the life that swirls around him. But whereas some people consciously hide yet are always aware of what surrounds them, Marcello walks around with blinkers on: blinkers that obfuscate almost every thing except his fantasy yellow brick road to Normal. What's particularly tragic about Marcello is that he doesn't understand that the concept of normalcy is a slippery slope, veritably indefinable and wholly unreachable.
There are only a handful of movies which feature a scene so unusual, so beautiful or perverse that it lingers in the mind of anyone who witnesses it. "The Conformist" contains such a scene: the iconic tango, dripping with over-the-top, blatant homosexual heat as performed by Stephania Sandrelli and Dominique Sanda in a Paris nightclub while the other dancers clear the floor, drop their jaws and marvel at the sensuality of it all. More importantly, Marcello stares at his wife, eyes filled with jealousy. But this is not a jealousy born from desire of her but jealousy born from Sandrelli's utter flamboyance and rigorous throwing off of any taboos about dancing with a woman (Sanda) who obviously wants her.
Though directed with precision and gorgeously photographed by the master Vittorio Storaro, the psychology of Marcello's desperate need to subjugate himself emotionally and physically to the iron hand of fascism is facile and naive at best and murky at its worst: but also remember that the source material by Alberto Moravia is over 40 years old and this film dates from 1970: different times, different thinking. This only slightly mars Bertolucci's achievement here. As it is, "The Conformist" is a serious, thought-provoking, emotionally open and available film filled with amazing images and bursting with Life.