In 1974 (two years before his death), legendary Italian director Luchino Visconti revisited a number of his most familiar narrative themes for the fascinating, if not wholly successful, "Conversation Piece." I'm almost ashamed to admit that as a long time admirer of Visconti (not to mention Burt Lancaster), I had never seen this movie until its current DVD incarnation. Reuniting Lancaster and Visconti certainly recalled their earlier pairing on the sublime "The Leopard," and I couldn't help comparing the films to some degree. Visconti, from his earliest neo-realist classics to his late period masterpieces, always had the power to provoke. A master of shot composition, as opposed to staging action, his filmmaking style always made me feel like somewhat of a voyeur intruding on his character's most intimate (or even mundane) moments. This fly-on-the-wall appeal is abundant in "Conversation Piece," a chilling and enigmatic chamber piece of a film that utilizes its claustrophobic environment to great affect. And while I didn't always believe the character interactions within this film, I was absolutely mesmerized by the undercurrent of emotions that lay just underneath the surface of all of the performances.
Lancaster plays an aging academic content to finish his days alone with his art, books, and music. One day a strange and intrusive woman (Silvana Mangano) insists on renting an upstairs apartment in his palazzo. Despite his insistence that it isn't for rent, he is soon meeting her grown children and an aloof family friend (Helmut Berger) and succumbing to their insistent charms. These early moments are played with such chaos and exaggeration, it's hard to identify with Lancaster's acquiescence as he is all but bulldozed in every scene. But he does relent and the characters morph into one of the most interesting, but dysfunctional, family units that you're likely to encounter. Lancaster is drawn into both troubling situations and unexpected camaraderie, and it becomes increasingly clear that these new relationships will either destroy him or help him reclaim his life. Maybe both! His bond with Berger becomes the centerpiece to the drama and the moments the pair spend together are the film's most engaging ones.
Lancaster, as you would expect, is exceptional. While I didn't wholly buy the initial premise, his reluctant inclusion into a lively family dynamic is superbly rendered and absolutely believable. Filmed in stagnant shots within cramped quarters, the characters seemed all but trapped with one another. Throughout, there are relevant observations about changes in the international political climate, the aristocracy versus the new guard, and the evolving social mores of a younger generation. It is a culture clash debate in which each party has a different viewpoint to offer the other. Mangano is edgy and irresistibly frustrating, but it is Berger who all but steals the show. This is, perhaps, my favorite role I've seen him in. An instigator or a victim? Every character revolves around the enigmatic allure of this young hustler and, as I said earlier, he could be their salvation or their undoing. I really enjoyed the complexities and ideas that Visconti brings to "Conversation Piece." It may not be his "best" film or even my favorite, but it is certainly an essential one. About 4 1/2 stars.
The Blu-ray presentation and new digital remaster looks great by the way. The disc also has an interview with critic/screenwriter Alessandro Bencivenni and a terrific 16 page booklet insert about the film and Visconti. A very nice addition. KGHarris, 3/12.