Drive and Il Conformista ‘s use of colours make for great comparison and contrast symbolically, emotionally, and technically.

First: Refn is colourblind, which impacts his work in a preference for heavy colour saturation.

Second: because of its time, Il Conformista required everything from on-set lighting to colour timing to be planned far more thoroughly in advance. This doesn’t make it better or worse, or even necessarily harder (though in this case it sure as hell was), but does make it more impressive. Some shots, particularly those on the train, are exposed with great care and low margin for error, which is obvious as the train ‘moves’ through darkness and light. If it was made in 2011, they may have taken advantage of more sophisticated spot colouring abilities in some places, as Drive does. Still, one doesn’t imagine shots like the wide, blue-tinged exteriors would have changed, as washing over the entire screen and mood is exactly the effect Bertolucci wanted.

Meanwhile in Drive, our protagonist is often lit differently than his background, the better to embody that neo-noir* “standing in yet apart from the city’s corruption” thing.

Il Conformista‘s narrative structure is intentionally fractured; the film uses colour to indicate where we are in place, time, and memory, as well as when characters are emotionally isolated and confused versus impassioned.

Look at how gorgeously it keeps the outdoor blue intact even when inside has neutral and warmer shades as characters reveal themselves literally and figuratively.

Meanwhile Drive makes great use of two-tone colour within a small space, showing the characters’ different emotional states.

When the Driver is alone and conflicted, he is lit half cold blue and half hot orange, rather than washing his face in one or the other.

Whereas in Il Conformista, similar internal conflict is shown with strobing between a ‘normal’ and red-washed palette (starting around 0:45):

Look at the division between Marcello and Giulia in their final scene, the once-prevalent blue now merely an accent above them both. After the intense colours of many of their previous scenes, the near-naturalistic lighting with just one blue hit stands in stark contrast; a scene which might be at home in plenty of other films here feels intentionally a bit lost, as do the characters.

Similarly, the ‘shadow murder’ at the end of Drive, coming as it does after several sudden, explicitly bloody violence of the three prior scenes, stands out for its difference.

Once you condition an audience to expect one thing, subverting it can be just as powerful, even if the image is more ‘plain.’

Message and emotionality comes from places besides colour, but the colour, framing, focus, and blocking greatly enhance the viewers’ understanding. Drive and Il Conformista use these tools to great effect.

Stray Observations 

– *Of course, the genre is more varied complicated than that, but the lighting, the undercurrents of violence and corruption, the bad man trying to do good things, the woman he shouldn’t fall for, etc. etc., give the action a neo-noir wash.

– Il Conformista‘s opening scene is incredibly blocked to dole out new information the moment we fully digest what’s happening. First we think Marcello is alone in the room, then he walks over to get a gun (which we also see in the first of many mirrors) and we realise he’s traveling. The camera follows him towards the bed, then up over the frame, to reveal a hat, and the moment we fully register that there’s a naked woman in the bed, Marcello removes the hat, then covers her with a sheet.

– Focus choices and pulls are also important to each film. Both have shots in cars where focus changes from character to character, not just when someone is talking, but when someone is thinking or reacting. In one case, the focus pulls to raindrops on the window so you can’t make out anyone’s face at all. Marcello and the Driver work to keep their faces inscrutable, but sometimes the director doesn’t want us to even try and read them, but to focus on what we the audience think – or project – in the moment.

– Even if neither plot scenario is one I’ll find myself in, and neither protagonist ‘looks like me,’ Il Conformista feels more relatable because it’s digging into universal emotions of struggling to fit in, be accepted, figure out what one’s morals and desires are and how to remain true to them. Though the protagonist is not an example to emulate, one recognises in him various opportunities, challenges, and struggles. Bertolucci said “evidently, the monstrosity of the feelings and of the characters which are present in the film is something [modern American] kids feel and recognize” and that holds true still.

– The queer energy radiating off Anna as she smokes, slinks around, and simply stands, is palpable. 

 – A beautiful video study of parallel lines in Il Conformista

– Playtime / Il Conformista would also make a great double feature 

– Special thanks to Steph Parsons for tracking down a copy of Il Conformista, for some of the notes which formed the basis of this essay, and for willingly pressing pause to answer questions about physical film processing.


2 Responses to “Colour in DRIVE and IL CONFORMISTA”
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  1. […] Conformista‘s opening shot also uses movement and mirrors for a slow-reveal-of-info (it also uses colour incredibly well). Yes, films often have more time and/or money to set up complex shots, but this was 50 years ago […]

  2. […] same year as The Exorcist (1970), Italy made The Conformist, a film about a man’s political compromise and much more, which also happens to be full of […]

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