CONVERSATION PIECE (1974)

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In Conversation Piece, a retired and reclusive professor (Burt Lancaster) lives alone in a luxurious house in Rome, full of books, paintings and art.  The ‘conversation piece’ of the title refers to portraits well-to-do families would have done of themselves in their finery to be a point of discussion. He has dedicated himself to the collection and preservation of these tangible things and ironically shut out people almost completely.  The professor’s life is one of order and refinement, removed from the vulgarity of the outside world and people.  When he is forced via the demands, cajoling and borderline bribery of a countess to rent his upstairs apartment to her and her coarse companions he eventually begins to question his choice of solitude.  His tranquil, meditative existence is rudely (even literally) shattered by the countess and her boorish lover Konrad (for whom the apartment was really rented), as well as her daughter and her daughter’s companion.  Despite this, it stirs up memories and thoughts within the professor that a different kind of life might have been his if he had made other choices and let people in.

Luchino Visconti had worked with Burt Lancaster 11 years previously on the highly regarded The Leopard (it’s one of Martin Scorsese’s favourite films).  That film dealt with a similar kind of theme as Lancaster’s ailing prince was forced to deal with the social changes of the 1860s as they impacted his family.  Conversation Piece is a more intimate treatise on change of a kind, and although it might seem initially more about the clash between young and old, it’s more about the interior life of the professor and the challenges he faces from these outsiders as they unravel his isolation.  Although the foul-mouthed Konrad might smoke and drink and put his feet up on the professor’s coffee table, the young man also has a sensitive side and an affection for Mozart and shows real interest in - and an understanding of -  the portrait pictures in the professor’s collection.  As with many who do, when making judgements on others the professor finds his broad opinions don’t reflect the layers present within people.  And then it happens: even though these interlopers bring a chaos to his order that the professor fears, he is forced to admit he might want, indeed desire the messiness that comes with the real human contact he has purposely shunned for so long.  The relationship that develops between the professor and Konrad becomes the heart of the film.

As he approached the twilight of his career, Burt Lancaster had made the switch from youthful action star to subtle character acting and that’s in clear evidence here in his sad-eyed, melancholic performance.  Visconti creates a world outside of time in the professor’s house (there’s no other set) that’s at once artificially unreal and emblematic of his interior life.  It’s a sumptuous and beautiful film, lushly made, contemplative and rich in subtext that should reward further viewings. 

CONVERSATION PIECE / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: LUCHINO VISCONTI / SCREENPLAY: SUCO CECCHI D’AMICO / STARRING: BURT LANCASTER, HELMUT BERGER, SILVANA MANGANO, CLAUDIA MARSANI, STEFANO PATRIZI / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW

 


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