A ‘conversation piece’ is an informal family portrait painting, primarily from 18th century Britain. Such a genre of artwork forms a perfect inspiration for Luchino Visconti’s penultimate film, Conversation Piece, which echoes both its painterly beginnings and transposes its title more literally into the cinematic medium. It fascinates and stultifies in unexpectedly equal measure, quoting the visual splendour, and arrangement, of the canvases it refers to and settling into recurrent – and on occasion tiresome – dialogue scenes.
Visconti probes a variety of key themes including loneliness, regret, death and desire, all through the lens of inter-generational communication in a chamber piece surrounded by the milieu of the Years of Lead. In particular, political turmoil invades the perfectly kept space late on in the proceedings, but there are intimations throughout, which is how the screenplay, co-written by Suso Cecchi d’Amico and Enrico Medioli, goes about its business. Indeed, the lavish Roman apartment in which the action occurs is a place of ornamental splendour, but emotional reticence. He may passionately covet beautiful paintings and first editions, but the Professor (Burt Lancaster) is not a man to afford much time to his feelings.
Effectively a hermit, the Professor is a outdated intellectual, successful in the past, and confident in his position, but cool to other people and increasingly out of touch. It’s only through an invasion of sorts, when the riotous Brumonti clan cajole him into leasing them the unused flat upstairs, that his reminded of the life he has lived and that he seemed to have given up on. How much this was an explicit excision of personal concerns remains debatable, but is clear that this was a particularly personal work for Visconti. While some would draw parallels between Lancaster’s Professor and his role as the Prince of Salina in The Leopard, a decade earlier, it is just as easy to compare the character to the director – in fact, Lancaster compared both characters to Visconti on several occasions.
Perhaps the Professor’s role as cypher is at its most evident in the undeniable homoerotic undertones that surround the relationship between the protagonist and Konrad, the young man played by Visconti’s lover and muse, Helmut Berger. Equally, the Professor’s self-imposed isolation reflects the relative immobility of Visconti who had suffered a stroke during the edit of his proviso film, the epic Ludwig. It necessitated the making of a more restricted feature, but the subject suits the style to a tea. The description of the Brumontis’ arrival by Pasquale Iannone in the booklet accompanying this new Masters of Cinema release of the film is as “random blasts of neon spray paint” and it could not be more apt. They literally pull down walls, but more so they bombard the Professor’s steely armour. Despite the wider social themes at play, it is this makeshift family dynamic that keeps Conversation Piece riveting.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson