As gorgeous as it is chilling, director Bernard Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970) is a mind-blowing adaptation of Alberto Moravia's novel with, remarkably, an even better ending, more ambiguous than the one spelled out in the book. This is Bertolucci's masterpiece, after which even his good stuff couldn't help but seem a little disappointing.

Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as Marcello, a man who, ever since childhood, has felt fundamentally strange. He's a mama's boy, a little femmy, and he never fit in with the other kids. One day after school while his classmates are ganging up on him, Marcello is rescued by a strange man with a nice car and an odd vibe. The stranger, who turns out to be a chauffeur, takes the little boy back to his room and promises him a gift—a revolver. Things turn ugly when Marcello realizes this gift will not be given freely, and that he is unwilling to pay the asking price.

As an adult, Marcello has buried that incident deeply, along with everything else about him that's off-kilter. Trintignant—in a performance that is masterful and legendary—portrays Marcello as a man with deep secrets, but what those are is a mystery to all around him. What Marcello wants more than anything else is to be "normal." Barring that, he'll settle for at least seeming normal.

This desire meshes nicely with the political climate of Fascist Italy, and Marcello quickly becomes a sort of government henchman, a deadly bureaucrat. But he still has to prove his worth, not only to his bosses but to himself. He marries the world's most normal, acceptable, appropriate girl, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), and when the government asks him to use their honeymoon as a cover for an assassination mission, Marcello agrees.

The target is Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), Marcello's old university mentor and an intellectual rebel who refuses to believe that the bright and curious boy he once knew has turned into this unquestioning cog in the Fascist machine. Quadri is not the only one who underestimates Marcello's bizarre vacancy, the hollow left in the wake of his attempts to suppress his entire personality. When Marcello encounters Quadri's willful and provocative wife (Dominique Sanda), we think we've glimpsed his downfall. But we're wrong; he was doomed long before.

Now that The Conformist is being re-released, there's absolutely no excuse for missing it. The cinematography by legendary Vittorio Storaro is reason enough to go. The sumptuous sets and costumes, all zebra-striped walls and baroque furniture and disco polyester and angled lines of light through blinds, are shot from dizzying angles, with an exuberance that defies every ideal Marcello is trying to force upon himself. Even the snowy winter scenes are palpably cold. The visual joys splashed across the screen make his buttoned-down persona and the conformity that ruled the era doubly tragic.

Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. 7 and 9:20 pm Friday-Thursday, Dec. 2-8. Additional shows 1:45 and 4:15 pm Saturday and Sunday. $4-$7.