Sunday, March 18, 2012


(Italy/France - 1974)

Directed by Luchino Visconti.  Written by Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Enrico Medioli, Luchino Visconti.  Cast: Burt Lancaster, Helmut Berger, Silvana Mangano, Romolo Valli,  Dominique Sanda, Claudia Cardinale, Claudia Marsani, Stefano Patrizi, Elvira Cortese, Guy Trejan, Umberto Raho, Enzo Fiermonte.  (Unrated, 121 mins)

The penultimate film by legendary Italian director Luchino Visconti (1906-1976) has been derided as one of his worst and most pretentious works for nearly 40 years.  It was shot in English, with much of the Italian supporting cast dubbed, and despite acclaim in Italy, film festival screenings abroad resulted in such bad word-of-mouth that it took three years to find a US distributor.  When then-fledgling New Line Cinema released it in the US in 1977, a year after Visconti's death (his final film, 1976's THE INNOCENT, wasn't released in the US until 1979), they released a version dubbed in Italian with English subtitles, which most agreed played a little better.  Raro USA's new DVD release only has the original English-language audio, and that was the way Visconti intended it to be shown (Raro's Blu-ray, due out in April, will have both audio options).  CONVERSATION PIECE has remained relatively obscure in comparison to Visconti classics like THE LEOPARD (1963), but its reputation has improved since its original release, and the essay in the package's accompanying booklet by film historian Mark Rappaport makes a pretty strong case for it being considered essential Visconti.

1974 Italian poster
Watching the film and with the benefit of perspective, CONVERSATION PIECE is, in hindsight,  a hauntingly personal, elegiac baring of Visconti's soul.  Visconti suffered a debilitating stroke shortly after completing 1973's LUDWIG and was partially paralyzed from then on.  CONVERSATION PIECE was his next film, and it's clearly the work of a man who knows he's facing the end, and it's all there on the screen.  Rappaport even goes so far as to write that the film itself is Visconti's Last Will and Testament.   Admittedly, it's uneven at times, the English dubbing of the supporting cast is an ill fit, and there's some pointless shoehorning of Italy's then-volatile political situation into the crucial final sequences, but, with the passage of time, and years of film students studying Visconti and others of the Italian neo-realist movement, perhaps it's easier to focus on what does work in CONVERSATION PIECE, which is most of the film.  It's not without flaws and problems, but what it gets right is too powerful to simply dismiss.

Poster for the film's 1977 US release
A retired American science professor (Burt Lancaster) lives alone in a grand, opulent Rome palazzo filled with the books, music, and art he's collected over a lifetime.  He has a maid and his only acquaintances seem to be art dealers with whom he occasionally does business, collecting "conversation piece" portraits of informal family or group gatherings.  The professor's solitary existance is disrupted by the Marchesa Bianca Brumonti (Silvana Mangano), a pushy, demanding woman of high social stature, who wants to rent the upper level of the palazzo for her daughter Lietta (Claudia Marsani) and her fiance Stefano (Stefano Patrizi).  The professor repeatedly explains that the upstairs is not for rent and that he planned on moving his library up there at some point in the future.  The Marchesa refuses to take no for an answer and before he even realizes what's going on, the Professor has signed a one-year lease for Lietta, Stefano, and a third boarder, the Marchesa's flamboyant, much-younger boy-toy and drug-dealing gigolo Konrad (Helmut Berger).  The three tenants invade the Professor's life in a variety of ways, including knocking down walls and causing a water leak, loud music at all hours, barging in unannounced, and not to mention the Professor walking in on them in a threesome (Berger and Patrizi do frontal nudity in this scene, but Visconti is careful with how he films 1973 Miss Teen Italy winner Marsani, who was only 15 at the time), but their presence gives an unexpected spark to the Professor's lonely life.  He surprises himself by bonding with Konrad, who loathes being the Marchesa's kept man and demonstrates intelligence and refined musical and literary tastes the Professor didn't think possible.  The Professor begins to lament all the lost years spent alone and is soon "adopted" by this bizarre trio as the father in their makeshift dysfunctional "family."

Deciding three's already a crowd, the Professor (Burt
Lancaster) declines an invitation from the
free-spirited Lietta (Claudia Marsani,
who's probably doubled in this shot)
Lancaster's Professor (he's never given a name) is a character cut from the same cloth as the aging prince the actor portrayed 11 years earlier for Visconti in THE LEOPARD.  Both are old men nearing the end, both filled with regret over roads not taken and societal changes they can't control, and both feel like relics in their own worlds.  But Visconti's declining health adds a different level of poignancy to CONVERSATION PIECE.   The Professor essentially is Visconti, and it's no coincidence that Konrad is played by Helmut Berger.  No one else could've played this role.  Berger became Visconti's lover and protege after working together on 1969's THE DAMNED.  So much of their reportedly rocky relationship is incorporated into CONVERSATION PIECE, and though a romantic angle is never consummated, it is mentioned when the Marchesa accuses the Professor of having designs on Konrad.  It's possible that the Professor feels a romantic desire for Konrad.  He walks into the bathroom while Konrad is showering and seems to be in no rush to leave, only excusing himself when someone knocks at the main door.  We know the Professor was married once upon a time (Claudia Cardinale plays his wife in a brief flashback), but all he says is "It didn't work."  For what reasons, we never know.  Visconti was bisexual, so perhaps the Professor is as well.

Burt Lancaster and Helmut Berger
But beyond any possible romantic scenarios, the Professor and Konrad first and foremost demonstrate a father-son relationship more than anything, which probably has parallels to Visconti and Berger's instructor-protege working relationship.  Rappaport's essay cites Berger's memoirs and other information to paint a picture of Visconti as someone who preferred a quiet evening at home and who was often frustrated with the much-younger Berger's hard-partying, stay-out-until-dawn ways, which is what happens with the Professor and Konrad.  What keeps CONVERSATION PIECE from reaching the level of Visconti masterpiece is the bizarre political tangent that gets introduced in the last part of the film, almost as if Visconti was obliged to say something simply because he came from the school of neo-realism and there was a lot of political tumult in Italy at the time.  It doesn't really gel, and in fact, it's a bit of a momentum killer.  But it's something that can be overlooked, and while CONVERSATION PIECE isn't on the level of THE LEOPARD, I think Rappaport's arguments are convincing enough to elevate it to the status of essential Visconti.  It's also a very beautiful film (the DVD is remastered, 2.35:1 anamorphic), taking place almost entirely inside the Professor's stunningly-decorated, colorful palazzo, a DePaolis interior that looks like it could've been (and probably was) used for several gialli of the period.  And while bleak and mournful most of the way, it also has a lot of dark humor, be it an occasional bit of inspired overacting from Berger or the three tenants giving the Professor a parrot that only says "They're killing me!" with Lietta explaining "It'll remind you of us."  With Raro USA's release of CONVERSATION PIECE, the time seems right for a reconsideration of this neglected and very deeply personal late-period Visconti work.

Somewhat misleading artwork for the film's
1980s VHS release in the US.

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