Fascismo as the weakling’s favored refuge is the simple theme behind the obfuscating Viscontisms, a vision suffused with perfume and poison. Il dottore is a civil servant (Jean-Louis Trintignant) introduced like a Melville gangster, his desperate need for the "impression of normalcy" is explained to a sightless ideologue in the midst of a radio recording session. (Glimpsed through a vast glass pane, the immaculate Art Deco studio circa 1938 would morph into Lynch’s "Sixteen Reasons" incantation in Mulholland Drive.) The past holds a fateful encounter with an Uranist chauffeur (Pierre Clementi); the present promises marriage to a petit bourgeois nitwit (Stefania Sandrelli) and all the mediocrity that entails; an alternate future might include escape with his old mentor’s bisexual trophy wife (Dominique Sanda), his ideal of political engagement and carnal mobility. "Debout, les damnés de la terre..." Psychological paralysis and the haunted subconscious, "shadows, the reflections of things," Bernardo Bertolucci lays it all out as a fragmented car ride through acres of luscious cinematic style. Italy is the moldy mansion housing the morphine-strung mother and the blanched marble asylum where the father lounges in straitjackets; the trip to Paris is an uncanny succession of process shots arranged like train windows, flickers from Sternberg. Osborne’s play A Patriot for Me and Magritte compositions (a split-screen effect is achieved by having characters in separate rooms within the frame), Plato’s cave as a metaphor savored by the hunchbacked subversive (Enzo Tarascio) whose murder is "an important step" in the protagonist’s career. Visual splendor reigns supreme in Bertolucci’s dazzling historical dreamscape, a slinky camera in continual activity: Gliding from snow and metallic blues to fallen leaves and burnished yellows, the mise en scène reaches an apotheosis with a teasing tango and then dissolves in the handheld terror of a roadside assassination. The 1943 stretto unfolds in a dictatorship's literal ruins, and gazes back over the shoulder and into the repressed truth. A ripe, masterly erudition, velvety yet unsettled; Coppola and Scorsese and Fassbinder proudly bear its influence. Cinematography by Vittorio Storaro. Music by Georges Delerue. With Gastone Moschin, Fosco Giachetti, Jose Quaglio, Yvonne Sanson, and Milly Monti.
--- Fernando F. Croce