A comparison of Bertolucci's The Conformist with the novel by Alberto Moravia from which it was adapted illuminates much about the ambitious style and structure of the film. For instance, Bertolucci chose not to follow the novel's omniscient point of view. Instead, he uses the intensely subjective and heavily unreliable point of view of the story's main character, Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a child of decadent aristocracy who embraces fascism, not from ideological commitment but from a desire to blend in with his social surroundings. Bertolucci also structures the film's plot in a non-linear manner rather than emulating Moravia's chronological narration. This strategy yields a film equivalent of the modern novel's characteristic "stream-of-consciousness" technique, whereby the inner workings of Marcello's mind, his desire for "normality" at all costs, are plumbed in a fragmented series of recollections held together by psychological association rather than direct cause and effect.
Bertolucci's approach transforms Moravia's rather conventional, socio-political novel into a much more intimate and complex psychological study of the protagonist. The film's subjective point of view emotionally intensifies the formative and revealing experiences of Marcello's life such as his encounter as a young man with a male seducer, his shamed alienation from his parents, his deliberate courtship of and marriage to a shallow bourgeois young lady, and his ambivalent relationship with his anti-fascist former professor and the professor's liberated, bisexual wife. Two plot alterations from the novel are also worth noting. One is in the manner and location of the assassination of the professor and his wife, which occurs much more matter-of-factly in the novel. Bertolucci changes the setting to an isolated, snow-covered stretch of countryside where Marcello witnesses the execution and, by doing nothing to prevent or protest it, becomes morally complicit in the act. A second change involves the plot outcome for Marcello himself. Whereas in the novel Marcello and his family are killed by Allied bombing while attempting to flee Rome, the film's ending is much more open and ambiguous.
Technically, The Conformist's indisputably brilliant cinematography, directed by Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now), combines with some of the finest low budget set decoration in film history to poetically evoke a 1930s European setting that seems simultaneously real and surreal. Such scenes as the blind persons' ball, Marcello's meeting with his father in a stadium-like insane asylum, his walk through the Italian fascist government building, and the justly famous low-angle shot of blowing leaves are either hauntingly lyrical or startlingly nightmarish or, often, lyrical and nightmarish simultaneously. Many shots in the first two thirds of the film are skewed by slightly oblique camera angles to suggest that we are seeing a reality shaped by Marcello Clerici 's selective, distorting memory. This visual style radically shifts once the climactic assassination takes place and Marcello's consciousness is absorbed entirely into the film's present time. George Delerue's musical score and other elements of the soundtrack also greatly enhance the wonderfully nuanced mood shifts within and between the complex narrative strains of the plot. Quite simply, The Conformist is an unforgettable masterpiece of the highest order.