Having seen Luchino Visconti’s penultimate film, Conversation Piece, only once before, and that some time ago in a very poor video copy, I purchased a DVD fully expecting to “appreciate” it more than like it. I certainly didn’t expect to find it downright fun. Admittedly, it’s the fun of bad behavior, and it is not clear the film’s entertaining qualities were intentional, but that just adds to the enjoyment.
Burt Lancaster stars as an aging American scholar, “the Professor,” (we never learn his name) shut away in a luxurious Roman apartment, trying to avoid the messiness of other peoples’ lives. He somewhat unbelievably is persuaded to rent his empty upstairs space to the Marchesa Brumonti (Silvana Mangano), her daughter Lietta (Claudia Marsani), Lietta’s boyfriend Stefano (Stefano Patrizi) and the Marchesa’s “kept boy,” Konrad (Helmut Berger), who become a surrogate family for the Professor. They are his worst nightmares come true, only more so. The Marchesa’s brood specializes in creating messes and insist on involving the Professor in all of them. A bunch of winningly honest vipers, they behave atrociously, but when they snipe at each other (which is quite often), they’re viciously entertaining.
Lancaster is not usually associated with such passive roles. Even when he consciously played against type for Visconti in The Leopard, his character still had a commanding presence. The Professor, on the other hand, seems as if he would be happy to fade into his apartment’s damask wallpaper, or move into one of the paintings that hang on his walls and give the film its English title. (A “conversation piece” is a genre painting that depicts a small group in everyday activities.) We don’t quite forget he’s Lancaster, but he gives a respectable performance.
Berger, on the other hand, cast to type, has never been more convincing. Konrad—gigolo, revolutionary, drug dealer, failed art history major—is a muddled conceit, but Berger runs with it. The political speeches that Visconti and his writers give Konrad are stinging, acrid, bitter and astute, but not terribly convincing, even allowing for the chaos of Italian politics in the 1970s. They do give Berger the opportunity to spit and snarl with especially intense conviction, however, while coating his bitchiness with a face-saving, politically correct veneer. Berger overcomes the writers’ pretensions and manages to make Konrad’s malice likable.
According to the disc program notes, the definitive version of Conversation Piece is in Italian. Oddly, the DVD is in English, with everyone other than Lancaster and Berger dubbed. The synching is done quite well, however. I would argue in this case that dubbing is preferable, only because the nasty dialog goes by awfully quickly for subtitles. I’d hate to miss any of it, because reading choice expletives would reduce their impact to the studied impersonality that I expected. There’s juice in this situation and these performances. It would be a shame to have it pressed out in the name of respectability because Conversation Piece is most enjoyable at its least respectable.