English Title: Conversation Piece
Original title: Gruppo di famiglia in un interno
Country: Italy, France
Language: English, Italian, French
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Luchino Visconti
Suso Cecchi D’Amico
Music: Franco Mannino
Cinematography: Pasqualino De Santis
Visconti’s penultimate feature, CONVERSATION PIECE is made after he suffered from a stroke in 1972, and would pass away in 1976 at the age of 69. The context might make plain that why this chamber piece is entirely set inside an old but palatial palazzo in Rome, where lives the retired professor (Lancaster) who is a conversation pieces collector, and a pall of nostalgia has been waywardly infused through his twilight year rumination over senescence, facing the imminent death and contending with hedonistic younger generations.
The professor’s solitary life is interrupted when he reluctantly agrees to rent out the apartment to Marquis Bianca Brumonti (Mangano), a middle-aged nouveau riche, soon he will get wind of the fact that Bianca has rented the place for her 12-year-junior kept-man Konrad (Berger), her teenage daughter Lietta (Marsani, Miss Teenage Italy 1973) and her pallidly handsome boyfriend Stefano (Patrizi), the latter two are quintessential rich kids wrapped in cotton wool, impressionable and capricious respectively. His young neighbors have no qualm about encroaching on his territory and breaching his equilibrium of tranquility and detachment, but the most egregious one is Bianca, a wanton intruder who takes Professor’s courtesy for granted, her laissez-faire approach towards Lietta, her strained relationship with Konrad, her condescending ordering around Professor’s diligent maid Erminia (Cortese), Visconti patently wears his heart on his sleeve that Bianca is an outrageous entity under the aegis of wealth, and Silvana Mangano never disappoints, she can be unapologetically ferocious, which pierces through her ageless make-up and hammers home to the point we cannot help but wondering why and how the professor must countenance such a prima donna!
A more plausible reason is the Adonis-like Konrad (although Berger’s exquisite look has begun to shown a smidgen trace of waning at this point), who is radical, cynical and self-destructively antagonistic towards the status quo which he has no power to change, and the professor harbors an almost reflexive and one-sided feeling of tendresse to him, Visconti cautiously skirts around the gay undertow, and instead foregrounds professor’s reminiscence of his youth (where two legendary actresses Dominique Sanda and Claudia Cardinale appear uncredited in brief flashback as the professor’s mother and his wife) and characterizes Konrad as an ideal force of beyond-the-pale dissolution, whose ultimate vengeance is harrowing but futile, soon to be forgotten.
Over a decade has passed since THE LEOPARD (1963), Burt Lancaster returns to a similar niche in this elegiac think-piece and stays in top form with opulent compassion where his restrained self-pity, behind-the-time humility and an underlying disillusionment conflict to retain the vestigial of nobility. The professor’s study is ornately-decorated in baroque majesty, in sheer contrast with Bianca’s modern taste, in Visconti’s eyes, the world has not progressed into a better world, CONVERSATION PIECE bemoans a bygone era of blue-blooded etiquette, it speaks volume, but frisson however, never materializes.