Tuesday, October 25, 2016

198. Italian maestro Luchino Visconti’s “Gruppo di famiglia in un interno” (Conversation Piece) (1974) (Italy): “Grief is as precarious as anything else”















Conversation Piece-- the penultimate feature film of Luchino Visconti--is a complex, often confusing and yet ultimately a very rewarding film. It is so complex with a variety of distractions that could make a serious viewer of cinema dismiss it as a minor work of the maestro only to change that opinion after multiple viewings and re-consider it as a major accomplishment of Visconti, almost autobiographical in parts. Autobiographical, one might ask? Yes, even though the original story is the work of another important Visconti collaborator Enrico Medioli, there are bits of the real life relationship between actor Helmut Berger and director Visconti that is infused into the film, not too obviously.  Similarly, the tale of a retired science professor is not far removed from the world of the Italian film director who is realizing much like the professor, he too is in the evening of his film career. The author of the original story Medioli had worked on the screenplays of three  other major Visconti films—Rocco and his Brothers, The Leopard and The Damned—and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Medioli won an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968).

This is also one of those rare films in the history of film an actor--Burt Lancaster--helped a director at a vital stage of the filmmaking process. (One recalls Kirk Douglas prevailing on Stanley Kubrick to change the ending of the original Kubrick script of Paths of Glory, and transform it into a major work of cinema that we now can enjoy.)  In Conversation Piece, actor Burt Lancaster, staked his own money to complete the film as producers were backing out noticing the director was ill and could die before the film was completed.

The cloistered world of the professor (Lancaster),
 surrounded by books, paintings and vases

The film’s tale is essentially the world of a professor who had taught in a university in USA, returning to live a cloistered life in Italy surrounded by books and paintings. He was once married. He does not seem to have had any progeny.  His wife is either dead, divorced or separated. He is looked after in large multi-floored apartment in the city by a faithful old housekeeper. The film reveals that though he knows all about art and the value of paintings, he does not know how to bargain with those selling the paintings. Into his life of peaceful solitude barge in a rich lady (Sylvano Mangano) with her daughter and the daughter’s boyfriend to see if they could lease the empty upper floor of the apartment building. She wants the apartment for her gigolo boyfriend Konrad (Berger), a well-educated, once politically involved, now an amoral drug abuser.  One would then assume the story would unfold into a clash of the classical sedate cloistered life of the professor versus the loud decadent world of the younger generations. Slowly the film peels away the layers of these individuals’ outward characteristics to reveal the real personalities. The rich lady’s behaviour is a result of a shameful marriage with an unscrupulous politician husband and his unsavoury friends. The gigolo boyfriend turns out to be not just well educated but a person of great political ideals, fighting the new age Fascists. The professor, living alone and clutching to semblance of seclusion, seems to be ruing a lost marriage, recalling his wife in her wedding gown (a cameo by Claudia Cardinale) and possible past where he could have opposed different Fascist forces in Italy when he was young.

The rich lady (Mangano) married to a corrupt industrialist


A major fact that many viewers could miss is the title of the film does not directly relate to conversations in the movie but was a well known (in the world of paintings) title for a series of paintings of an 18th century British painter, Arthur Devis.  Conversation pieces were paintings of activities that could lead to conversations of art lovers and other intellectuals. Another artist, William Hogarth, a contemporary of Devis, drew a painting called A midnight modern conversation depicting men conversing in drunken incoherence. That makes you to reassess the entire film.  The only direct connection of the series of paintings is a brief conversation between two major characters in the movie—the professor (Lancaster) and Konrad (Berger)—giving clear evidence that both were well acquainted with the series of paintings. Once you evaluate the film on the basis of the painter's decision to change the very trees and objects in his painting compared to the photograph taken of the same scene, the movie's stature itself changes. The film is a study of Italy through the eyes of three generations and their varied values on social interactions, art, politics, architectural design, music, et al. The viewer is thus gently nudged to make the metaphorical connection.

An attentive viewer will note the film begins with a loud gunshot. You don’t see anyone being killed until the end of the film. The opening credits follow the blast as the camera captures the electrocardiogram graph roll streaming out unattended is a Visconti masterstroke. The patient is apparently dead.

The professor and the newly acquired 'family'


The professor (Lancaster) and the gigolo (Berger);
both are equally amazingly knowledgeable about art 


The film is even more complex for the viewer because the gunshot and the person whose electrocardiogram is being taken are not directly connected. The person killed by the gunshot is another. What is even more complex is that the individual shown in the film filled by the gunshot is supposed to have committed suicide. Yet there is statement made by the rich lady (Mangano) the lover of Konrad killed by the gun shot: “He did not kill himself. They murdered him.” Whether it is a statement of reality or mere hyperbole is for the viewer to decide. But that statement grievously hurts the old ailing professor, the only among all the characters in film who had faith in him (Konrad) as he closes his eyes in the final shot. The film slowly drifts to the point it makes –grief. A statement made in the film towards the end “Grief is as precarious as anything else” encapsulates much of the film—grief of broken marriages, grief of not having faith in persons who deserve it, grief of not fighting Fascist forces by either becoming a recluse or taking to drugs. Visconti’s broader statement is of Italy over decades.


That the film was made by the director sitting on a wheel chair is impressive. Is it a film about acquiring possessions or about understanding people? It is about both. At the beginning of the film the retired professor is acquiring paintings, by the end of the film he has acquired a family he initially did not want or approve of. The professor wistfully states in the film “It could have been my family.”  Thus, the Italian title of the film which translates roughly as “internal family group” makes equal sense as the English title. One realizes the importance of understanding human behaviour of strangers, as one educated professor was withdrawing into solitude surrounded by books, works of art and great music. And his life changes for arguably richer and yet tragic experience in his sunset years. The endearing performances of the aging Burt Lancaster and of Silvana Mangano as the haughty rich lady are remarkable. Burt Lancaster’s three performances in Italian films are the highlights of his career—Visconti’s The Leopard  and Conversation Piece and Bertolucci’s 1900.The cameos of Claudia Cardinale as the professor’s wife, the smiling and enchanting Dominique Sanda (as the professor’s mother) do not contribute much except in providing insights into the character of the professor for the viewer.  In two films, Conversation Piece and in Death in Venice (1971), the director Visconti and cinematographer Pasqualino de Santis together have captured images of a person dying that are impossible to forget.

Visconti, Lancaster and Medioli are the significant contributors to this grossly underrated work.


P.S. Two films-- Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America  and Kubrick’s  Paths of Glory--mentioned in the above review have been reviewed earlier on this blog. Conversation Piece won the Golden Spike award at the Valladolid International Film Festival. 





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