Conversation Piece, on paper at least, would appear to bear resemblance with the schmaltzy Hollywood dramas in which an elderly gentleman has his life changed for the better thanks to the arrival of a much younger, initially unwanted guest. It’s a plot that was recently used, with distinctly ordinary results, in Gus Van Sant’s Finding Forrester - although that film did have the merit of a stellar soundtrack consisting of choice cuts by Miles Davis. However, the film under discussion is by Luchino Visconti and, as such, we expect something both better and more complex than the usual Hollywood feelgood fare. Certainly, things aren’t so cut and dried; Burt Lancaster’s professor may fit the archetype but his reluctant decision to allow an entire family (led by matriarch Silvina Mangano) and attendant gigolo Helmut Berger) to use his upstairs apartment affects him in ambiguous ways, prompting amongst other things recollections of his own family with particular attention paid to his mother.
And yet, whilst Conversation Piece represents a darker, more interesting work than the populist likes of On Golden Pond say, or the aforementioned Van Sant film, it is also very much a minor Visconti piece. His penultimate feature (The Innocent would follow in 1976, the year of his death), Conversation Piece shares many thematic connections with his earlier works, yet the territory covered had been better explored in these films. Moreover, because of these connections, comparisons are inevitable and inescapable. The melodramatic tone, for example, can be evinced in the vast majority of his output, both cinematically and theatrically (the latter career being far more prolific, encompassing operas and even occasional ballets), as can the opulence of the surroundings – the first word uttered, “exquisite”, sums things up nicely. The observation of family dynamics can be seen in La Terra Trema, Rocco And His Brothers and The Damned and, more specifically, the relationship that forms between Lancaster and Berger has strong echoes of that between Dirk Bogarde and Bjorn Anderson in Death In Venice. Indeed, it is in connection with Death In Venice that the failings of this later film become most apparent. Both films are seen solely through the eyes of their respective and not entirely dissimilar protagonists, yet whilst the earlier film had only Anderson and, to a lesser extent, Venice to focus its attentions on, here Berger and the family become too much for the film to contain. Much as Lancaster is often eavesdropping on their interior struggles, so too the viewer is constantly left in the dark as to who exactly they are and what they are doing. Of course, they produce an obvious effect on Lancaster, but owing to this problem, any changes can only be seen as anti-climactic. A more focused, less populated situation, one containing only the two male leads for example, might have led to the film becoming an interesting take on Pasolini’s Theorem - in which Mangano also featured – and the wonderfully tense confrontations between Lancaster and Berger, exposing their multitude of differences, certainly point in that direction. Instead, we are left with something a little too limp to ultimately mean anything and, therefore, the film fails to achieve any strong effect.
The acting helps to a degree but, again, complications arise; once more with Death In Venice in mind. Berger has never been better; not acting as such but displaying enough charisma to hold his own against the far more experienced Lancaster. In addition, he has the ability to swear in such a fashion that the words seem invented solely for his lips. Lancaster, on the other hand, is more problematic. He’d worked with Visconti before, in 1963’s The Leopard to great effect, yet here he seems a little too awkward to be playing the part. Admittedly, the highly visible unease does initially aid the proceedings – the Professor is exactly that – but all too often, Lancaster seems too “American” for the part. His history as a matinee idol (The Crimson Pirate, The Flame and the Arrow, Jim Thorpe-All American) is too apparent, as is, from a contemporary viewpoint, the fact that his greatest achievements around the time of Visconti’s film (1974) were in Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid and Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, both as deeply American characters. The Death in Venice connection comes into play once you consider how Dirk Bogarde might have fared in the part of the Professor. Sharing Lancaster’s past-life as a matinee idol, Bogarde’s move towards Visconti and “European Cinema” – beginning with his work for Joseph Losey – was far more graceful, taking in collaborations with Losey and Pinter and serious British films such as Victim before moving on to Alain Resnais, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Bertrand Tavernier; Lancaster, on the other hand, seemed to be making just the occasional random entry – a Carol Reed here, a Bertolucci there. Moreover, the role of the Professor seems far more akin to Bogarde’s characters in Lilani Cavini’s The Night Porter and Resnais’ Providence, both films which make extensive use of their protagonist’s memories, than anything Lancaster had elsewhere attempted, making the suitability of Bogarde all the more apparent.
All of which isn’t to say that Conversation Piece is an unworthwhile experience. Certainly, the film contains enough mysteries to warrant at least one viewing (consciously so, a pre-credits unseen explosion that is unresolved until much later is particularly enticing) and a minor Visconti is still preferable to vast numbers of other motion pictures. Still, the fact remains that those who are not completists of either the director or Lancaster should venture to see the considerably more rewarding The Leopard first.
Given an anamorphic transfer of its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Conversation Piece looks extremely good on DVD. As said, Visconti always makes visually ravishing films and this is no exception. Despite the occasional minor scratch, there is nothing to prevent an appreciation of the director’s keen eye.
Soundwise, the original mono is offered in Dolby Digital 2.0. Again, no major faults make an appearance and it should be noted that any lip-synching problems are due to the Italian practice at the time of recording the dialogue in post-production. This, however, is rarely apparent.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the limited interest in this film, no extras are present. Also, note that despite the claims on the sleeve that the film runs for 97 minutes, this is the full-length 116 minute version.
Anthony Nield has reviewed the Arrow R2 release of Visconti's penultimate film Conversation Piece.