Raro Video // 1974 // 122 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // April 4th, 2012
"The elderly are strange creatures, argumentative and intolerant. Sometimes they're frightened by the loneliness they wished for...other times, they defend it when it's threatened."
Luchino Visconti's penultimate film is a departure from the neorealist dramas that brought him early acclaim (La Terra Trema, Ossessione) and the lavishly produced epics of his later years (The Leopard, The Damned, Ludwig). A thought-provoking and fascinating mix of satire and tragedy, Conversation Piece is an exquisite bit of filmmaking, a near-masterwork that demands rediscovery.
The Professor (Burt Lancaster, Sweet Smell of Success) seems content to live out his life in solitude in his well-appointed home, with his art, books, and music as companions. One day, a brash woman, the Marchesa Bianca Brumonti, all but invades his quiet home, demanding that he rent her an apartment on the top floor of his home.
The Professor insists that the apartment isn't for rent -- he's planning to turn it into a library -- but the stylish, bourgeois harridan seems unaccustomed to taking "no" for an answer. A deal is sealed, but the Marchesa will not be using the flat for herself; rather, it's a temporary home for her young lover, Konrad (Helmut Berger, The Secret of Dorian Gray). The Marchesa's teenage daughter, Lietta (Claudia Marsani), and her boyfriend, Stefano (Stefano Patrizi, Young, Violent, Dangerous).
Trouble begins almost immediately as the new tenants begin an authorized renovation that causes damage to the Professor's own living quarters. But this is the least of the disruptions. The tenants are rude, vulgar people who think nothing of intruding on the Professor and involving him in their problems. They have little understanding of his way of life and no interest in his refined tastes.
Except Konrad, who forms a strange bond with the older man.
Although it was made nearly 40 years ago and deals with types of people who were certainly "of that time," what's surprising about Conversation Piece is how contemporary it feels. The idea of people existing without making "real world" connections is even more immediate in these days of social networking, gaming, and online commerce.
Of course, the Professor hardly seems the sort to be racking up Facebook friends; early on, he mentions that he's less interested in people than he is in what they can create, their art. He's locked himself away in a beautiful dungeon, free from the contamination of human contact. Everything in his apartment is sedate and pristine. His tenants insinuate themselves on him, and he's appalled by their garishness.
While the tenants might be boorish and obnoxious, they aren't villains; Visconti cast attractive, appealing actors, and while their actions might annoying (at least to the Professor), when they're not onscreen, their presence is missed; there's a void, and gradually, the Professor feels it. The more shocking their behavior becomes -- an orgy, a beating at the hands of thugs, mysterious comings and goings -- the more ingrained he becomes in their lives. What should repel him ends up drawing him in, and the Professor finds himself questioning whether his closed-in world, with its gracious artwork, classical music, and somber, refined trappings really does consist of "the finer things."
At first glance, the family is not unlike the duplicitous interlopers in Joseph Losey's The Servant -- decadent, opportunistic, grasping -- only, in Visconti's film, they are not criminals and street people, but are of a higher social status. At least, the Marchesa and her daughter are; we know little of Stefano, and Konrad is no more than a male hustler whose advantages are made possible by his association with these jet-setting vulgarians. Interestingly, it's the decidedly ignoble Konrad who emerges as the character with the most depth, the most potential, the one who seems to understand the Professor and appreciate his interests.
Conversation Piece is really a wonderful movie. Its scope is less ambitious than most of Visconti's films, but it's so beautifully realized that it can't be dismissed as a "lesser" work. In many ways, it's almost a companion piece to The Leopard, with Lancaster again playing a character of insulated nobility whose world is upended by changing times and a crass nouveau aristocracy. As he showed with Bellissima, Visconti was quite capable of making a comedy -- albeit, a dark one -- and in fact Conversation Piece is often very funny, particularly in the early scenes as the Professor grows increasingly frustrated with his tenants; but it's also touching and quietly emotional, with moments so delicate they fairly linger on the screen like apparitions.
As the Professor, Burt Lancaster adds another memorable performance to gallery that includes diverse and challenging films like The Unforgiven, The Swimmer, 1900, and Atlantic City -- and, of course, his earlier collaboration with Visconti, The Leopard. He is superb here, at 60 years old, playing a character whose name we never learn and who constantly refers to himself as an old man. Lancaster had such an expansive presence and was such a magnetic actor that it's really a treat to see him in a film like this where he has to pull back and internalize, where we see his talent as something so much deeper than the grand gesture and athletic movement. This is a haunting, fully realized performance that easily ranks with his best work.
Silvana Mangano (Dark Eyes) brings just the right amount of coiled-cobra poise to her role as the aggressively entitled Marchesa, but it's Marsani and Berger who are standouts. Marsani (according to her IMDb profile) was around 14 or 15 when she made this film, which makes some of her scenes a little difficult to watch. She is absolutely charming, though, as a young girl who might or might not know more than she should for her age.
Conversation Piece offers Berger one of his finest, and ultimately, most sympathetic roles. His initial impression is of a self-centered, hedonistic young man. He thinks nothing of imposing on the Professor, smoking in his home, demanding liquor (the Professor drinks only wine), and belittling the older man, subtly and not so subtly. But as the film progresses, he displays a more vulnerable -- and appealing -- side. Berger, it's been written, was playing a variation of himself, with Lancaster's role a stand-in for Visconti. Berger and Visconti were in a relationship for many years before the director's death, and Conversation Piece seems, in some ways, a valediction on the pains of that relationship.
Raro's release of Conversation Piece (Blu-ray) is impeccable. The high-def image looks nothing like a film from 1974; it's clear and crisp, with solid colors and a good amount of depth, and it retains its film look with little noticeable DNR. Audio is available in two DTS mono tracks: the original English track, which features Lancaster and Berger voicing their own dialogue, and an Italian dub. There are English subtitles that translate the Italian track.
The disc isn't exactly brimming with supplements, but what's here is worthwhile. Besides a trailer, there's an onscreen interview with film historian Alessandro Bencivenni. The set also includes a booklet with a terrific essay by Mark Rappaport as well as biographical information on Visconti.
Part of what makes Conversation Piece so intriguing is what Visconti doesn't tell us, small gaps that add to the unsettling nature of the film. Visconti also plays a bit with time, so it's not always clear when the events are unfolding and how many days -- if any -- have lapsed between events.
So it's a bit of a letdown when, near the end, Visconti starts giving us "reveals" about the characters -- one character, in particular. It just seems that the themes are all laid out a bit too didactically in this particular scene, with a political argument and talk of secret anti-government plots jarring and intrusive after the comparative elegance of what we'd seen prior.
Stimulating, seductive, challenging, and wise, Conversation Piece is a must-see film. Raro's Blu-ray is the best way to experience it.
Review content copyright © 2012 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Raro Video
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (Italian)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Not Rated