Well I was gonna watch it again, and re-watch I have. This time there was no formatting to fit my screen, and no English dubbing. Instead it was the film as it should be seen (minus the movie theater of course). I noticed two things about the film with this new varation. First off, it wasn't too much different in it's original language, because the film very well might have been shot silent with dialogue dubbed in later, as was common with Italian films of the time. The second thing I noticed is that this film's genius is more attributable to Vittorio Storaro than to Bertolucci. It is a cinematographer's picture, and not a shot in the film seems wasted.
This film should be used for textbooks on staging and lighting. From the beginning it is noticable, the first shot of Marcello (Jean Louis Trintignant) in his hotel room, shrouded in neon shadow, we are constantly aware of the visual nature of the film. Storaro uses extreme pans, beautiful tracking shots, subjective POV shots, and lights every scene as if it were a painting. Even things as simple as the first scene with Marcello's wife (who's then only his fiance) played by Stefania Sandrelli, Storaro uses light from the Venetian blinds shining through likes bars. True to visual splendor, her dress perfectly matches the lighting scheme. We are aware of the lighting, and why? Giulia represents a form of prison for Marcelloe. She is dull and lifeless, and if you get a little alcohol in her, she acts the fool. I thought watching the dubbed version that the voice used for her was terrible, then when I saw Sandrelli herself voicing her lines, I realized she's supposed to be that irritating. The point is being made that this woman is someone you DON'T want to end up married to.
The narrative structure is where Bertolucci gets to shine. The film is so fast paced, that he rarely has the patience to wait for one scene to end before starting the next, cross cutting between flashbacks within flashbacks, and flashforwards within flashbacks. If it sounds confusing, don't worry, visually it all works. It did take me awhile to notice exactly what Marcello and Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) were heading towards in the car. I'll abstain from mentioning it because it becomes the climax of the film.
The point of the story may be that conformity in and of itself is a bad thing, but Marcello isn't so much a conformist as he is an adapter. He doesn't want to draw attention to himself, so he plays by whatever rules are established by whatever side is currently winning. His character is a survivor like the protaganist in Europa, Europa (1991). He will pledge allegiance to anyone to keep himself out of harm's way. Only once do we see his loyalties quesitoned, and that is during the "test" given to him by Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio). He is asked to deliver a letter to an anti facist operative in Italy, knowing full well that Marcello works for the Italian government. The letter is just a blank sheet of paper, but his failure to turn it in, lets us know that perhaps his country isn't his top priority.
Being a guy, I found the most interesting scenes to be the ones featuring Anna (Domonique Sanda) and particularly her scenes with Giulia. There is a sexual undercurrent throughout the film, but Anna represents the sexuality that both Giulia and Marcello wish they could have. There is a fire in her, where Guilia and Marcello barely have a spark. And well looking at Sanda, it is very easy to see why anyone would go through hoops of fire to get to her. In fact Marcello's guilt over his assignment to investigate Prof. Quadri is more for not wanting to harm Anna. His loyalties again shift, from his mentor to his mentor's wife (who's about half his age).
Some people have attributed his weak will and desire to blend in from his latent homosexuality. We only get one clear example of this, from his childhood, which is also the first time Marcello kills somebody. The shooting seems rather silly and unintentional, but perhaps it was Marcello's own fear of his homosexuality, or perhaps his fear of his young sexual urges, because at this point in time he's still a child. Our first image of him as a child though is him getting beaten up by about a dozen local boys on roller skates. He is obviously the outcast in childhood, and wants to fit in. His goal in life is to be one of the bullies, not the bullied. This first sexual experience, and killing is what helps him to become that. He has had the ultimate power, taking a human life.
Staging is everything, and Bertolucci likes to show his actors occupying separate rooms while talking. He does this early on with Giulia and Marcello in one room, while Guilia's maid (whom Marcello is also sleeping with), stands in the hallway looking on. It is repeated throughout, with Marcello looking in on Anna and Giulia, and towards the end with Marcello and Giulia having a conversation from different rooms in their house. He is visually showing the distance these people have, and in particular Marcello's. He's unable to really get close to anyone, because he puts up a wall in front of him, sometimes quite literally. It is because there is no real identity in Marcello. He is whoever you want him to be, or whoever he needs to be, for that he may be weak, but it gives him an edge.
btw do whatever you have to do to see this film, it's one of the absolute best pictures ever made, and would sit somewhere in my top ten foreign film list.