He is the final great Italian filmmaker—the last to command the world's attention on a level his peers once dominated, and an artist who pushed style, sex and politics to a frontier no one else bothered to breach. All of Bernardo Bertolucci's glossy, elegantly deviant films are worth seeing to some degree. But unless you're hard up, we suggest skipping the dirty-old-man stuff from his recent two decades, and going straight to the lush period: In between The Grim Reaper (1962), his thorny debut at age 21, and The Last Emperor (1987), an Oscar-approved Marxist tragedy, is a provocateur with no equal.
Is his masterpiece Last Tango in Paris? Nope, because that film's Brando would hardly have been conceivable without The Godfather and, thus, without Bertolucci's achingly perfect The Conformist, a bold stroke that predicts the entire inward sweep of the 1970s. Our hero, Clerici (Trintignant), is a proto--Michael Corleone: a quiet devil in the backseat. He yearns to fit in, so Mussolini's Fascism calls to him, as does a normal lifestyle with louche, pasta-making Giulia (Sandrelli). But Clerici has dark plans of self-negation; The Conformist is celebrated for cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's tumbling autumn leaves, but its emotional impact involves a tumbling soul.
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