The Godfather’s godfather

Thirty-six years ago, Bernardo Bertolucci rocked cinema with The Conformist, a film that inspired an entire generation of filmmakers — most notably Francis Ford Coppola, who used it as a stylebook for The Godfather.

For most of the past third of a century, this dark psychological thriller has been mostly unwatchable — beyond occasional art-house showings, available only in butchered and cropped VHS. So cinephiles are practically convulsing with joy that it’s finally being restored to its original wide-screen glory on DVD (out 12/5).

In telling the story of Clerici, a low-level operative in Mussolini’s government who is instructed to assassinate his former professor, Bertolucci set much of the action in often jaw-dropping Roman and Parisian interiors. A Fascist official’s hangar-size office, a vast windswept mansion, a sanatorium that’s a sea of luminous white marble — every epic tableau contrasts with Clerici’s pathetic emotional state.

Clerici, you see, just wants to conform, be normal, even as he’s plagued by memories of his deeply messed-up childhood. It’s Bertolucci’s panoramic focus on the complicated emotional life — the suffering — of his wretched protagonist that made The Conformist both of its moment and ahead of its time.

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