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A retired American teacher leading a solitary life in a luxurious palazzo in Rome meets a lively marchesa and her companions, including her daughter and her lover. He rents them an apartment, and his quiet lifestyle is changed in a profound way by his colorful new tenants.
For more about Conversation Piece and the Conversation Piece Blu-ray release, see Conversation Piece Blu-ray Review published by Brian Orndorf on April 9, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Helmut Berger, Silvana Mangano, Claudia Cardinale, Dominique Sanda, Stefano Patrizi
Director: Luchino Visconti
» See full cast & crew
Conversation Piece Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Brian Orndorf, April 9, 2012
A master craftsman of films such as 1963's "The Leopard" and 1971's "Death in Venice," Luchino Visconti settles down for 1974's "Conversation Piece," which is perhaps his most tranquilized effort. Taking a microcosmic look at life inside an Italian apartment building, the picture is exquisitely observational and finely acted, carrying a bold sense of unspoken desires and developing fears, playing smartly as both a domestic drama with pronounced period intentions and as a study of the aging process, with its distressing atmosphere of seclusion and routine. While a motionless feature in a visual sense, Visconti encourages a rising tension to the piece that's nurtured expertly for two generous hours of pointed conversation and acts of deception. The helmer's penultimate creation, "Conversation Piece" radiates an autobiographical touch underneath the theatrics, articulating private thoughts and broken dreams in an achingly human manner, making star Burt Lancaster's nuanced performance all the more potent. Acidic, with a few flashes of uneasy sexuality, the movie commences as a mannered story concerning an invasion of privacy, only to ultimately reveal itself as an open wound of feelings and political paranoia, shaped into a compelling sit by an influential, widely beloved filmmaker.
A former man of science who's seen the extent of the world's woes during his time in war, The Professor (Burt Lancaster) lives a solitary life inside an opulent palazzo in Rome. A collector of fine art, known as "conversation pieces," The Professor has filled his empty home with gorgeous paintings, drawn to their complexity and uniqueness during a time of elderly stasis, while his thoughts occasionally turn to a lost marriage that's haunting his loneliness. Marching into his life is Marquise Bianca Brumonti (Silvana Mangano), the demanding wife of a controversial politician, who requests the open space above The Professor's home for use as an apartment for her lover, Konrad (Helmut Berger). Badgered into a lease, The Professor is dismayed to find remodeling plans are starting to destroy his own domicile, while Bianca's daughter Lietta (Claudia Marsani) and her boyfriend Stefano (Stefano Patrizi) have joined the invasion, with their youthful energy cracking the veneer of refinement The Professor has spent his life perfecting. Drawn into Konrad's escalating troubles, The Professor finds himself growing fond of the family's addiction to drama, seizing purpose and emotional involvement for the first time in decades, while the young hustler struggles to find his place in a changing world, achieving comfort in the old man's worldliness.
The story of a man's distinguished residence invaded by toxic outsiders traditionally promises overt thriller trappings, with the innocent tormented into submission, unable to defend himself against the youth gone wild. "Conversation Piece" doesn't take an interest in such genre delights, accepting a daringly tender direction wrapped up in an itchy atmosphere of discomfort, as The Professor is confronted with a colorful display of modern sensibilities that often literally crash down around him. Using the irritation to fuel interpersonal events, Visconti latches on to a particularly scratchy area of personal thaw, keeping The Professor suitably flummoxed as his initial disapproval of the family's corrosive ways soon warms to an appreciation for their complications and their presence, allowing a man who's removed himself from life a chance to partake in a community atmosphere, with arguments, lust, and manic behaviors reawakening his senses in unexpected ways. Once a distanced appreciator of recognized artistic achievements, The Professor is now facing unpredictability again, reminding him of a life he once knew. Visconti (who co-wrote the screenplay) creates understanding where anxiety should be, developing a poignancy between The Professor and Konrad, two opposites bonding over an admiration of art, extending to physical protection when the gigolo finds himself in over his head with drug deals and European politics, triggering sensitivity in the senior that comes to surprise the family, who never knew their refined landlord had it in him.
It's through Lancaster's graceful work as The Professor that "Conversation Piece" truly finds its footing as a sensitive psychological study. Always precise with reactions and emotional leakage, Lancaster brings ideal regality and startling vulnerability to the character, developing the man's openness to these strangers through subtle changes in demeanor and physical involvement. He's superb here, carrying a crippling weight of remembrance and restraint that infiltrates every scene, deepening the significance of The Professor's eventual submersion into the sordid lives of his tenants. There's a joy in simply watching Lancaster play miniature beats of understanding, elevating the entire cast along with him, with commendable work from Berger as the seductive, troubled Konrad, while Mangano steals scenes as Bianca, a fiery woman saddled with intense issues of shame, quick to lash out at those who challenge her, a trait she's learned from her own dealings with her cagey husband.
Providing further stimulation is the spacious production design by Mario Garbuglia, creating an astonishing living space for The Professor that speaks to his love of art and his diminutive stature within his own home. With secret rooms (once used to hide assorted refugees) and quiet corners, the living space comes to be its own character, displaying hypnotic depth and artistic refinement. There's also a sharp collision of eras revealed later in the picture, when work on Konrad's apartment is finally completed, the finished product resembling a rec room from "Danger: Diabolik." Cinematography by Pasqualino De Santis is equally divine, rich with color and expanse, generating a palpable feel for exclusion and intrusion, further enriching the feature's concentration.
Conversation Piece Blu-ray, Video Quality
The AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation carries itself gracefully, providing a fresh viewing experience that handles the demands of the soft cinematography satisfactorily. Colors are rich and stable, with the opulence of The Professor's home preserved with hearty reds and golds, while elaborate costuming carries an additional element of varied hues, communicating the generational divide further. Fine detail is scrubbed out to a degree by DNR efforts, but the image retains cinematic flavors, with some facial nuances and make-up additions easy to scrutinize, while fabrics maintain texture. The depth of the production design also makes an impression during this HD event, with the viewer permitted to survey artwork and literary choices, while lens limitation also reveals itself in full. Low-light scenarios bring out some clotted blacks and moderate ghosting issues, but shadow detail is acceptable. Skintones are flush, with pleasing pinks supporting a human feel to these troubled characters. Reel changes are spotted, but the print is largely clean.
Conversation Piece Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The 2.0 DTS-HD MA sound mix is a blunt affair, befitting a film nearly 40 years old. The frontal sonic push is comfortable, with a heavy isolation of the Italian dubbing, making dialogue exchanges and emotional purgings easily understood. Scoring is supportive, carrying a decent weight to drive home dramatic points, never intruding on the performances or hitting shrill notes common with pictures of a certain age. While a true sense of bass is missing, the mix brings an accurate read of the effort's passive nature, with silence an important component that's preserved well without intrusive imperfections. The track is not dynamic, but realistically simple and effective. And English mix is available as well, presenting Lancaster and Berger's original audio.
Conversation Piece Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Conversation Piece Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Although politics in this combustible Italian landscape provide some sense of disorientation throughout the picture, blood doesn't truly boil until the final act, where The Professor bears witness to confessions and accusations that do little to dissuade his emotional interests. The moments feed into Visconti's passions for barbed conversation and national interests, yet the blast of blame makes "Conversation Piece" feel a little too bottom-heavy, loosening some of its tight grip on intimate matters. However, it's a small price to pay for such an expertly observed feature, which sustains a mesmeric interest in personality and passions emerging from unlikely sources. The textures of still life make an ideal setting for Visconti's vision of yearning.
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