Visconti's penultimate movie was deliberately set within a small set with no need for complicated exterior shots whatsoever or for long takes, so that filming would not prove too great a strain on the director's already poor health. But the result is still, if not a masterpiece, certainly one of Visconti's best.
Burt Lancaster returns for his second Visconti film, playing a (deliberately?) unnamed retired American professor whose life of peace and quiet contemplation in his vast Italian apartment is shattered by the arrival of a dysfunctional family on his doorstep. But that arrival awakens in the professor latent thoughts and feelings about a life that may have been much fuller and richer than the lonely monk-like existence in which he presently exists. When asked why he lives alone, the professor responds, "Crows fly in flocks; the eagle soars alone." It has been claimed that the film is about both the comfort and the terror of solitude, but also that family and art require exclusive devotion: it is either one or the other.
I find with Visconti's movies that there is often a problem with the dialogue with the speech often being dubbed, sometimes into a different language from that which was originally spoken. Here, though, we have very few of these problems. We hear Burt Lancaster's distinctive voice (although clearly done through ADR), and we hear Helmut Berger's too.
Berger plays the part of Conrad who can be a bit of a boor: on their first meeting he casually puts his feet on the professor's antique table and does not ask the professor's permission to smoke as he drinks his wine. But Conrad also listens knowledgeably to the professor's Mozart records and appreciates his works of art, factors that make for the possibility of a close relationship between them. For some commentators, it is the relationship between these two that is the crucial aspect of the film.
Unfortunately Conrad is the young gigolo to Madame Bramante, played by another Visconti favourite, Silvana Mangano. Conrad and Madame are in that kind of relationship where none are happy except when fighting each other. Theirs is the war that disturbs the professor's peace. There is also Madame's daughter and her `boyfriend' Stefano added to the mix. Stefano compares the professor's life with those of the paintings on his walls, depicting quiet and serene landscapes. At one point, the professor blurts out that the whole family are "rude, stupid, useless people." And I guess his predicament can be summed up by the caged bird that is presented by them to him as a gift. What does the bird cry? "Let go of me. Let go of me."
At the end of the movie, the professor declares, "The day a certain Madame Bramante came to see me to ask about renting the apartment upstairs, I refused because I was afraid of having people around me that I didn't know, people who might disturb me. Everything has turned out far worse than I could have imagined ..." And yet, these people have turned out to be HIS family, and he feels awakened from his sleep.
And what of Madame's husband? He never appears but when he is mentioned it is often in terms of his participation in conspiracy. Given that the film was released in 1974, there are undertones of the tough times in Italian politics but that's another subject for another day.
One might question the 18-certificate for this film. There is some nakedness and much bad language, but no scenes of graphic violence: I've seen far worse films on that score with a lower age limit. Alas, there are no extras. Oh, and finally, the film lasts 117 minutes, not the 97 as stated on the cover.