Luchino Visconti suffered a stroke in 1972 during the post-production of Ludwig which was basically the beginning of the end of his film career. He however managed to finish two more films till his death in 1976 and one of those films was Conversation Piece. It’s probably best known for the fact it reunited Visconti with the star of arguably his masterpiece The Leopard Burt Lancaster .
Lancaster plays a retired professor who is now living in Rome and remains relatively solitary from the outside world. The title comes from the fact the professor collects conversation pieces, which is a kind of painting. Things start to change when he rents his upstairs apartment out. He rents it to a countess played Silvana Mangano and her companions including her lover (played by Helmut Berger), her daughter and finally her daughter’s boyfriend. He is forced to interact with them and he formally quiet existence is turned upside down.
Given it’s a Visconti film it has a strong political subtext and it’s a statement on the old and new of the bourgeoisie.This is best shown by the Lancaster’s apartment being decked out in older style whilst the top apartment is decked out all modern. Visconti being a noted Marxist had contempt for the bourgeoisie but he also lived a bourgeoisie life himself, he was a contradiction.
The film isn’t one of Visconti’s finest film, he was obviously suffering a great deal of physical pain so the look of the film is extremely flat. It would have probably been more suited to the stage and the fact it stays very much the same throughout aesthetically I ended up finding it boring at times. There are also possible deliberate real-life parallels between Lancaster and Berger’s characters to Berger’s relationship with Visconti although the relationship in the film isn’t sexual.
Conversation Piece is an interesting chamber piece (a genre I’ve never cared for) with a strong lead performance from Burt Lancaster. Visconti was obviously past his glorious years but it’s an important film in his career. I just hope somebody can finally sort out the rights to his long out of print adaptation of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. The disc includes new 2K transfer, the English and Italian version, an interview with Alessandro Bencivenni, a newly made documentary on the film, the trailer and a booklet with a new essay by Pasquale Iannone.