Born into nobility, the Italian director Luchino Visconti had a unique perspective on the foibles of the upper class, and Visconti’s penultimate film, Conversation Piece, is in some ways a referendum on wealth. The protagonist uses his affluence to separate himself from the rest of the world, transforming his historic villa into a private museum filled with expensive artwork. The vulgar family that barges into his home and demands permission to rent an upstairs apartment is pure Eurotrash, transforming the whole world into the backdrop for their petty psychodramas. Caught between these exemplars is a handsome young hustler who has the aesthetic sophistication of the protagonist and the low morals of the vulgarians. Not every filmmaker has the curiosity or integrity to dissect his own social class and then present his findings to the world, no matter how unflattering, so it’s to Visconti’s credit that Conversation Piece paints a grim picture. Whether the movie also works as entertainment or even as a logical narrative is another matter, because much of the plot is predicated upon far-fetched behavior.
The Professor (Burt Lancaster) contentedly occupies his Roman villa until the overbearing Marquise Bianca Brumonti (Silvana Mangano) shows up one day and demands a visit to the Professor’s spare apartment. Despite his repeated declarations that the rooms are not available for rent, she wears him down and leases the space for her daughter, Lietta (Claudia Marsani). Thereafter, Lietta begins elaborate remodeling without the Professor’s permission, leading to friction, and the Professor becomes involved in the life of Konrad Hubel (Helmut Berger), the Marquis’ lover. Eventually, Konrad uses the apartment as a crash pad following a beating, so the Professor becomes Helmut’s unlikely caretaker.
Conversation Piece can be taken at face value as a human drama, and it can be interpreted as social or even political allegory. As with so many leftist European filmmakers who lived through World War II, Visconti often used his work to ponder the big questions of how and why society allows toxic influences to take root, and to celebrate individuals who reject isolation for involvement. Named for a type of artwork the Professor collects, Conversation Piece is perhaps most effective as exactly that—something to discuss after it’s over—since watching the picture is a bit tiresome. The movie looks beautiful, with elegant camerawork capturing meticulous sets and costumes, but much of the onscreen behavior is unpleasantly histrionic. And while Lancaster’s character is a beacon of decorum and sanity, his performance is mannered and theatrical to a fault. Like the movie around him, Lancaster suffers for an abundance of artifice, polemics, and stylization.
Conversation Piece: FUNKY