In Hollywood’s parade of movies about fascism, we get the flag waving, the usual dictators, the stomping boots, cannons roaring, splendidly dressed military officers and lots of maps.

But in great European films, directed by giants like De Sica, Visconti and Rossellini, the plots unfold on smaller scales, with secrets crawling out of the shattered cities like maggots.

The villain is never bigger than life, like a Hitler, Tojo or Mussolini. It’s always some little guy in the back of the room who started it all, who did the most damage, the little guy in tailored black coats and slouch hats, too timid to stomp or roar, and like a rat, too frightened of the brilliant sun of world infamy.

In his remarkable and now historic 1971 film, “The Conformist,” Bernardo Bertolucci gives us one such creature, Marcello Clerici, played by the brilliant French star Jean Louis Trintignant,(“A Man and a Woman”) a sinister, sexually conflicted Italian professor, who dresses like a secret warrior but who at heart is a coward, given to standing back from the military battles, preferring instead to join the cloak and dagger crowd; even there preferring to stay on the fringes.

In “The Conformist,” Marcello Clerici is a child of wealth in the World War I era; teased by schoolmates, he finds solace in the companionship of the family chauffeur, Lino, a pale lackey who owns a pistol that he offers like candy to the confused child. When he tries to seduce the boy, Marcello grabs the gun and in a flurry of anger, shoots Lino.

The gun, the attempted seduction, the anger and sexual confusion will cling to the skin of Marcello’s soul, haunting him throughout his life.

The grown up Marcello, polished, cologned and tailored, wanting to become a player and find his place in the fascist sun, volunteers to become part of the massive Italian party.

He is recruited, then scrutinized at a meeting in a large marble-floored room filled with gray light to match the suit and skin of his interviewer.

He is given an assignment, to go to Paris, find a Professor Quadri, an old friend who has defected to the French as an anti-fascist organizer. Before departing, Clerici decides to wed his fiancee, Giulia, an emotionally thin Stefania Sandrelli, about whom Marcello says,” She’s mediocre, a mound of petty ideas. She’s all bed and kitchen.”

In Paris they first meet Quadri’s beautiful bi-sexual wife (the haunting Dominque Sanda) a ballet teacher who in a turn of events, playfully seduces Giulia as she gives her a pedicure, while Marcelo watches from another room.

These scenes are not of the heavy breathing, shirt tearing Hollywood sort, but soft, almost whispered, seductions.

After 112 minutes of Marcello’s tortured journey, the film ends in a Roman alley after the fall of Mussolini. Italy is chaos, the alleyways and streets littered with lost characters that seem like Fellini’s comic people, drained of their humor by the horror of war, fallen silent and subsisting on the flesh of stray cats.

At the end, Marcello, guiding a blind friend on a walk, meets up with his past. It is an explosive scene and gives Marcello a last opportunity to betray.

Bertolucci’s rise and fall of Mussolini and Italian fascism are only background noise, like distant thunder. It is, as in all great films, about the people. And Monrovia’s people provide a feast.

Vittorio Storaro, who photographed Coppola’s ” Apocalypse Now” and Warren Beatty’s epic “Reds” is the magician here. His camera is a master’s paintbrush, and with delicate hints of humor, gives us dawn blue streets and red lighted bedrooms, the brutally cold marble offices of the powerful, decorated with massive statues that loom over the little clerks who toil at meaningless tasks. It is almost Charlie Chaplain’s idea of the fascistic empire.

There are scenes that have never been topped in any film since: Marcello’s childhood home, the walks and gardens awash in autumn leaves, the high white walls of his father’s asylum with the old man walking about waving the loose black arms of his loosened strait jackets. “The Conformist” is an adrenaline rush of color and light.

The cast could not be better: Sanda and Sandrelli, Enzo Tarascio as the assassin’s target. And of course, Trintignant as Marcello, Alberto Monrovia’s man in the back of the room.

Finally, the viewer and Bertolucci, owe eternal credit to Osvaldo Desderi’s unbelievable sets and Gitt Magrini’s costumes, all of which lift the film to historic heights. Someday a major opera will be made of this film. You’ll want to be there.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer and former actor.

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