Conversation Piece (1974): Blu-ray Review

by James M. Macleod

We open on a magnifying glass looking at a painting in detail. An aged and cracked family portrait. A conversation piece. Beautiful from afar but shattered glass when close up. With one simple shot the entire film is set up as an examination of a family in need of repair.

Italian master Luchino Visconti (most known for his other Burt Lancaster collaboration The Leopard, and Rocco and his Brothers) made his penultimate film smaller in scale partially due to his health. Gone is the scope and sometimes sprawling nature of his other films, but his essence is retained. Set predominantly in the large up-scale apartment of a retired professor (Burt Lancaster) the film oozes with detail. Even though his style is classical the design of the place is utterly real, palpably warm and rich. His home is covered in portraits of families long dead with no family of his own. That is until a younger rich woman ropes him into letting her lover and children rent his upstairs, and so his life and building is invaded by the next generation.

Lancaster’s character acts as an alter ego of Visconti, whose own work could be described as family portraits of people in an age long gone. The entire flat is his oeuvre and Lancaster’s struggle to live alongside the youth mirrors Visconti’s own adjustment to the world, cinema, and filmmakers now taking his place. This meta-textual element is an honest and layered one. New filmmakers exist in the foundations laid by generations before them, but it’s one they’re compelled to tear down and experiment with. Similarly the new tenants have been allowed to alter the bathroom, but soon their work covers the entirety of the flat. They are indebted to and knowledgeable of what came before, but have little desire to simply replicate it. Lancaster chides them at first, yet eventually warms to their better natures whenever visible. There’s a constant push and pull going on; Lancaster can’t handle their vulgarity yet is so moved by their moments of goodness or insight that he can’t keep away.

Another central contrast on display is that of the modern and traditional ways of being bourgeois. From the old near-aristocratic way to the modern brash youthful rich. This is not purely an “older is greater than newer” film, far from it. By its end many of the divisions between them are torn down. Both are privileged, disconnected, and selfish in their way. Something well emphasised by the film never leaving the building that houses these people. Our protagonist certainly isn’t as crude or invasive, still he isn’t free from the influence of privilege. Of being conditioned to see your way as right, to see your perspective as absolute, and to live life unchallenged. Burt Lancaster’s performance is key to all of it. He exudes gravitas and sternness, yet there’s something approachable and fatherly about him. When he gives advice you want to take it, when he shows kindness it is a gift.

Both eras of the upper classes are free from the torment of the now. Only the young man living upstairs feels the tremors of fascism. So for him being sandwiched between two types of bourgeois throws salt in his ideological wounds. He has respect for the professors knowledge but is frustrated by his isolationist ways. On the flip side he’s reliant on the freedom borne of his mistress’ wealth, even though it is a daily reminder that such freedom can exist only due to the people he despises.

For an enclosed chamber piece this is a film that’s thematically far-reaching. Visconti has tightened his scope but not his mind. Some filmmakers get to a point where their age shows through their cinema, becoming the cinematic equivalent of Principal Skinner saying “Am I so out of touch? No, it’s the children who are wrong”. Visconti on the other hand says that if the children are wrong then it’s because of the world that’s been left to them. Rather than let our fear of death force us not to reckon with humanity’s future we must embrace it so that we can live on through them.

Sometimes the film has characters saying exactly what they feel a little too much, and its ideas land best when not over-emphasising them. But as a filmmaker’s closing statements on his life, craft, and place in the world, it certainly stands out.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

· 1080p transfer of the film from a brand new 2K restoration

· Features both the original English language soundtrack and the Italian dub track that was produced at the same time

· Optional English SDH (for the English track) and optional English subtitles for the Italian track

· Interview with critic and screenwriter Alessandro Bencivenni

· Trailer

· Plus: Booklet featuring a new essay by Pasquale Iannone; and vintage writing on the film.

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