Director: Luchino Visconti / Screenplay: Enrico Medioli + LV / Editing: Ruggero Mastroianni / DP: Pasqualino De Santis
Cast: Burt Lancaster / Helmut Berger / Silvana Mangano / Claudia Marsani / Stefano Patrizi / Elvira Cortese / Claudia Cardinale / Dominique Sanda
Exploring the spaces in-between…
The penultimate film by Italian director Luchino Visconti, Conversation Piece marked his return to work following a stroke that paralysed his left-side. The project’s small scale (entirely studio-based with just a few, beautifully-drawn sets) would provide a controlled environment for the Maestro to operate in; the theory being it’d be easier to manage and less stressful.
Visconti had forged an early reputation as a leading light of the Italian Neo-Realist movement, with pictures such as Rocco and His Brothers, cementing these credentials. However, in 1963 he made the sumptuously-mounted and acutely insightful Il Gattopardo, or The Leopard, as it’s known in English. An adaptation of a novel by Tomaso Di Lampedusa, it’s a wonderful film I should get round to reviewing one day. If you haven’t already seen it, I recommend the sparkling remaster on Blu-Ray. That film starred Burt Lancaster in the title role, as a Sicilian nobleman in the Nineteenth century, locked in a futile battle against his own mortality and the inevitability of change. For Visconti to secure the services of one of Hollywood’s major players, for an Italian production set largely on-location in Sicily, was both a coup and validation of the esteem in which his films had been regarded internationally. Visconti made relatively few films over a long career, but his taste – his ‘quality control’ – remained constant.
Ten years-on from The Leopard however and with his health failing, Visconti turned to an idea suggested by long-time screenwriting collaborator Enrico Medioli who, at the time, was renting a split-level apartment in Rome. Its lower floor was furnished and decorated in a traditional, ornate Italian style, whereas its upper level was modern-minimalist in style. This got Medioli thinking, about a character who might live downstairs ‘in the past’ and who’s balance – their ‘moral compass’ – is disturbed by newcomers upstairs. Further inspiration came from an Anglophile art collector & historian called Mario Praz who in 1970, had written a book entitled Conversation Pieces; a work dedicated to studying figurative portrait-paintings of family groups: its title happens to be the apparent term for works in this sub-genre and its author’s lifestyle, was further inspiration for Medioli. Given that the film would look at a ‘version’ of a family, the title all-but suggested itself.
It seems that was all Medioli needed to work-up the bones of a script that, he correctly guessed, would intrigue and inspire Visconti, drawing vague parallels with The Leopard’s story & theme. I wonder if it was that connection, no matter how tenuous, that attracted Lancaster to this new project, as much as the chance to collaborate once more with his old friend?
The picture opens with the un-named Professor in his ornately-detailed, richly-furnished apartment with its walls, hidden behind innumerable ‘Conversation Pieces’, from the Eighteenth & Nineteenth centuries. This genre is evidently his passion, as he’s being shown a work by a couple of dealers, who’re looking to sell. Despite being attracted to the picture, he declines to buy: a decision that will prove fateful. In refusing to buy someone else’s vision of a family, this lonely bachelor unlocks something entirely real. For amidst the comings and goings, he has missed the appearance of Marchesa Bianca Brumonti…
Lancaster appears very comfortable as the Professor, bringing a careworn gravitas to the role. In his hands, I bought-into the Professor’s ascetic life-choices and denial of Self. As an actor staring-down his own, slow fall from ‘stardom’, I could see the attraction for Lancaster.
Initially assuming Bianca to be with the picture dealers, the Professor listens as she states her purpose, whilst chain-smoking her way about the place as if sizing it up: which is exactly what she’s doing, of course. Bianca is played by the striking figure of Silvana Mangano, an Italian actress possessed of a noble, angular face, who’d go-on to marry the successful producer Dino de Laurentiis. Her role in Conversation can’t have been enjoyable, as she’s written as an unsympathetic, matriarchal harridan; the embodiment of the ‘political right’ – a member of Italy’s powerful industrialist class, to whom Visconti was antagonistic towards throughout his life, given his Marxist ‘hard left’ views. Again, Medioli’s script is setting-up conflict on many levels.
Through Bianca, the film allows Visconti to explore opposing views of how one might be bourgeois… On the one hand, we have the building’s owner and original occupant Il Professori: an urbane, cultured man, art collector and historian. On the other, we have the family of Bianca Brumonti, who are little more than vulgar, angry Philistines, through whom Visconti articulates the notion of ‘the rabble storming the gates of decency’.
Bianca is soon joined by her daughter Lietta, played by Claudia Marsani. Sixteen years old at the time of filming, I see Marsani’s performance as the film’s weakest link. Wherever fault lies, be it in her casting, the script or her interpretation of the material, whenever Marsani’s on-screen, I see a fish-out-of-water. We’re also introduced to Lietta’s boyfriend, Stefano, played by Stefano Patrizi; a good looking lad to be sure and a more confident actor than Marsani but, like his on-screen girlfriend, Patrizi’s acting career wasn’t to last.
Once united with her brood, Bianca’s intention is revealed: she wishes to rent the apartment directly above the Professor’s and has approached him, having learnt he owns it. Watching Lancaster soft-shoe his way around her intention, is to watch a man fall helplessly towards the future. Bianca is a true force of nature in his life; something he’s not had to deal with in years: and she knows it! In Mangano’s hands, Bianca’s a woman used to getting her own way. Out of sight, Bianca also meets Konrad, a young, blonde German, whom we learn is Bianca’s paid gigolo: how ‘Eurotrash’ is that?
Let’s talk about costume design. The Professor is an unchanging symphony of tweeds, wool and fusty English style, but Bianca hails from New Money – the ‘nouveau riche’ – and flaunts it. Throughout the film, she will wear a selection of opulent styles supplied by Fendi, amongst others, as well as a luxurious, decadent lynx fur: the brash, gaudy antithesis of everything the Professor believes in.
Despite sending them out empty-handed, Visconti delights in revealing the twist of fate: having the Philistines buy the very picture that he turned-down (and at a lower price, as well!). Worse, they present it as the equivalent of three months rent… Faced with such persistence, the Professor agrees to a year’s lease. Inevitably, things soon go wrong, as the Professor’s awakened by a cacophony from above, that brings down ceiling plaster and cracks a water pipe; the trickle from which, damages his paintings (and, by extension, his equilibrium).
He goes upstairs and meets Konrad for the first time and from the young man’s bitterness towards Bianca – his benefactress – and her family, it’s clear his motivations are confused at-best. A miscommunication had Konrad believing that Bianca had bought, not leased the apartment, which is why he began knocking-down walls. Now the truth is known, Konrad wants to make amends with the Professor and blames Bianca. There’s more to Konrad that meets the eye: an interest in Mozart is revealed, when he spots a new LP sourced in America by the Professor. There’s a rich hinterland to Konrad, but how much will Visconti show us? Enough, as it turns out, to see him as the most rounded of Bianca’s clan, because not despite his troubled past. The impression I got, was that Visconti saw Konrad as a ‘go-between’. Someone with the aesthetic sensibility of the Professor, yet who’s able to blend-in with the bourgeoisie. Konrad is a chameleon, then; a shape-shifting class warrior.
I also found Helmut Berger’s depiction of him to be interesting, given that he and Visconti had been lovers for over a decade by this point. I believe Visconti had cast Berger in a trio of films all-told, of which Conversation is the last, and I’d be interested to know what aspect of Berger he saw in the character of Konrad, given their intimate relationship? I wonder, was it hard for Visconti to separate fact from fiction? Taken as a performance, without subtext, I thought Berger to be every inch Lancaster’s equal in the film. When not prowling about the place like a panther (or even a ‘leopard’), Berger’s depiction of Konrad, shows a man frightened of the situation he finds himself in. It could be immediate danger from incurring the wrath of volatile Bianca, or a lingering sense of threat, as Konrad’s extra-mural activities begin encroaching upon his sense of liberty, but often, Berger imbues him with a haunted look; a convincing glimpse of the ‘little boy lost’.
With the drama of the unauthorised demolition behind them, things settle. From this point, scenes accentuate the family’s view of the Professor’s ‘loneliness’ and what, in their view, must be done to alleviate it; going so far as to present him with an annoying Mynah bird, that repeats just one word. It’s as though Bianca’s family have ‘adopted’ the Professor, against his will; unconsciously infecting him with their own ‘anti-culture’.
Events take a darker turn, when Konrad is beaten-up in his new flat, by thugs out to recover gambling debts. The Professor hears a disturbance and finds him; bringing him back downstairs to a secret ‘flat within a flat’; a separate living space, carved-out of the expansive apartment, with an entrance hidden (somewhat theatrically) behind a bookcase. The Professor reveals, that his mother had it built to give shelter to Jews during the war. It’s a perfect hiding place, but it’s more than that.
Some have applied a ‘psycho-geographical’ interpretation to the apartment, seeing it as a projection of the Professor’s personality, with its traditional décor & contents. There are one or two clues scattered throughout the film, that suggest the Professor is a closeted homosexual himself and that this secret void represents that aspect of his self. So, putting the ‘sexually fluid’ Konrad into this space to recuperate, can be viewed as Visconti admitting his own sexual identity to the world; especially given he and Berger were lovers ‘in the real world’. In hindsight then, Conversation is almost an auto-biographical statement from Visconti, with the role of the Professor – and Lancaster, in particular – an idealised version of himself.
Without giving away much more of the plot, I will say only this: Konrad eventually reconciles himself to his own destiny in the only way he knows how (going out ‘with a bang’) and the Professor hears portentous footsteps at a time when he’s ready to meet the unknown walker…
Was Conversation a landmark piece of cinema? No, no. Not by a long way. Boiled-down, it’s little more than a chamber piece that, with a little alteration, might work for the stage. Its physical scope might be small, but the sets are generous and thanks to Visconti’s habit of using multiple cameras to capture a scene, ‘in the moment’ rather than have different set-ups and takes, the scenes have a crackling fizz about them, that even the oft-stilted dialogue can’t dispel; at times, it verges on Melodrama, but there’s just enough underlying grit in these characters to lift it. There’s also a lavishness to the production in-keeping with the heights seen in The Leopard; it’s Visconti Doing. It. Right.
A lesser director, might’ve taken the raw materials and delivered something worthy only of a TV-movie, but even in the twilight of his esteemed career, Visconti was able to look beyond the base metal and see the gold.
Its ideas are big (class struggle, sexual manipulation) and small (testing the loyalty of one’s staff and fighting for one’s peace). But this is also the penultimate artistic statement from a Director who can see his light dying a little more day-by-day. So he decides to rage against it in the only way he knows how and that, alone, must be worthy of our attention.
I studied. I travelled. I was in the war. Married. That didn’t work. And then, when I found time to look around, I found I was in the company of people with whom I had nothing in-common.