Raro Video // 1974 // 125 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge P.S. Colbert // February 23rd, 2012
Visconti. Lancaster. Together again.
In art, the "conversation piece" refers to a genre of portrait painting established in 18th century Britain. These portraits typically presented an informal group of family and friends in a domestic setting.
A retired (and unnamed) professor (Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry) plans to live out his twilight years cloistered in an elegantly appointed Roman palazzo, surrounded by an extensive collection of rare books and exquisite works of art. Unfortunately, the gentleman's plans are shattered by the Marchesa Bianca Brumonti (Silvana Mangano, Ludwig) making an unscheduled visit and expressing an interest in renting the upstairs apartment. Though the Professor makes it clear the apartment is not for rent, the Marchesa is persistent to the point of bullying, as she steamrolls her way into seeing the rooms.
But wait, there's more! The lady has brought with her a party of three: daughter Lietta (Claudia Marsani); her daughter's fiancée, Stefano (Stefano Patrizi); and a striking blonde Austrian man named Konrad (Helmut Berger, The Damned), who may or may not be the married Marchesa's young lover. The intrusive foursome make quite an impression on the mannered and courtly Professor. They dismiss him, speak discourteously, and blow clouds of toxic cigarette smoke all over the elderly aesthete's living quarters, which can't be good for his rare books and exquisite works of art.
Within twenty four hours, the professor agrees to lease the premises to them for a year's stay. Before the contract is even signed, the youngsters have moved in and wreaked extensive structural and plumbing damage upon the place.
And so it begins...
Before Conversation Piece final credits roll, the majestic palazzo will be visited by bloody violence, drug-spiked orgies, police enquiries, heated political arguments, and death, all of which the Professor witnesses helplessly. The obvious question is: Why? Why would the professor change his mind about renting the apartment, especially to a group so obnoxious they make no attempt to hide their ugliness from the start? If it were you, would this rabble even get through the front door?
Though a rebuke makes sense, it wouldn't make for much of a movie. From this incredulous premise, master Italian director Luchino Visconti (Death In Venice) has fashioned a sumptuous feast for the eyes, ears, and intellect of his audience. Classified as one of Visconti's minor works, Conversation Piece represents a major reunion between the director and Burt Lancaster, who last collaborated on The Leopard, arguably Visconti's finest film and certainly his largest in scale. The decade between these two films proved worth the wait, as Lancaster is superb.
Superb also goes for Raro Video's standard definition 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, which masterfully brings out the richness of the film's optic beauty; a considerable feat. The Dolby 2.0 mono track is adequate, but considering this is a film which relies on heavily-accented dialogue (particularly in the case of Berger's thick Austrian dialect), the absence of subtitles is almost a crime.
Bonus features are a treat, including an original Italian theatrical trailer with English subtitles, a brief but enlightening interview with Italian film critic Alessandro Benccivenni (also subtitled), and a photo-filled booklet featuring essayist Mark Rappaport's critical analysis of the film. In other words, CineGeek heaven!
There's no sense pretending Conversation Piece is for everyone, especially those with an allergic reaction to the "artsy-fartsy," but Visconti fans are going to need to free up some shelf space for this classic.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Raro Video
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Not Rated