Reviewer: Jeffrey M Anderson
Ratings (out of five): ****
In 1974, Luchino Visconti was nearly seventy and had worked as a filmmaker for thirty years. He was in ill health and his most glorious films were behind him. When it came time to make The Conversation Piece, which would become his second-to-last film, he needed something fairly simple to shoot, like something that took place in one building.
Having hit upon an idea, he called up some of his favorite actors, including Burt Lancaster, who had starred in Visconti's opulent masterpiece The Leopard (1963). The presence of Lancaster in a much smaller-scale Visconti production can only draw unfavorable comparisons. And, no, Conversation Piece is not nearly as impressive, ambitious, or powerful as The Leopard. But that doesn't make it a bad film.
Lancaster plays a retired (unnamed) American professor, living in a huge, ornate palazzo in Rome. He's a collector of art, and people sometimes visit to try to sell him things. One day, two men come, with a woman in tow. The men discuss business and then leave. But the woman wasn't with them. She just slipped in when they did. She wants to rent the top floor of the palazzo, and even though the professor initially says "no," he winds up agreeing.
She is the Marchesa Bianca Brumonti (Silvana Mangano), and it turns out that the apartment is really for her "kept boy," the handsome Konrad (Helmut Berger). The lady also brings along her daughter Lietta (Claudia Marsani) and her daughter's fiancée, Stefano (Stefano Patrizi). These four completely disrupt the professor's stately, quiet life, ripping apart the upstairs quarters, inviting in ruffians, and just generally being rude (like not showing up when invited for dinner).
With a much smaller, more enclosed space and time frame, Visconti gets to work using his widescreen frame to the fullest. The professor's apartment is absolutely gorgeous, like a museum, filled with books and paintings, as well as Lancaster himself, a steel-grey monument to elegance. The intruders turn the upstairs apartment into something that looks like a large bathroom, a shocking contrast.
Moreover they begin to sprawl all over the entire building, making themselves at home, draping legs over chair arms, smoking pot and having sex, while the professor remains polite and upright. Only Konrad seems to be able to speak the professor's language. He knows enough about art and culture to help the professor identify the author of a painting; Konrad straddles both worlds, disdaining both, but acting as translator for both.
This is a very different movie from the classics that Visconti has come to be known for (Ossessione, La Terra Trema, Senso, Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard, etc.), but it shows him gracefully adapting to maturity and old age, and it's all the more interesting for that.
Raro Video has done a magnificent job translating this highly detailed film to DVD, and the quality is excellent. (A Blu-Ray will reportedly follow next month.) Extras include an original Italian theatrical trailer with English subtitles, an interview with Italian film critic Alessandro Benccivenni (also subtitled), and a photo-filled booklet featuring essayist Mark Rappaport's critical analysis of the film. (Reportedly, Visconti made both English and Italian-language versions, but this DVD is presented only in English, which appears to have been the primary language spoken on set.)
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