Conversation Piece (1974)

conversation piece1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Obnoxious tenants take over.

Burt Lancaster plays an aging Professor who lives alone in his giant palazzo situated in Rome along with the exquisite art pieces that he has collected through the years. His only connection with other people comes through the form of his servants headed by his live-in maid Erminia (Elvira Cortese), but even here his communications with them is distant and detached. Then one day a Countess (Silvana Mangano) arrives asking if she can rent his upstairs room, which he rarely uses. The Professor is initially reluctant, but the Countess is looking for a place to harbor her young, left-wing lover Konrad (Helmut Berger) from her right-wing husband as well as using it as a sanctuary for her teen daughter Lietta (Claudia Marsani) to spend time with her boyfriend Stefano (Stefano Patrizi). After a great deal of insistence he finally agrees. The new tenants then immediately begin remolding the room using outside contractors, which creates a great deal of noise and distraction, causing the Professor to regret his decision and feel like his once peaceful abode has now been invaded.

The behind-the-scenes had more drama than anything you see in front of the camera as director Luchino Visconti had suffered a stroke that left him confined to a wheelchair and made it hard to find funding as backers believed he was in such bad shape that the film wouldn’t be completed only to have Lancaster assure them that he would take over directing should it become necessary. To help compensate everything was shot on a soundstage, which is the most impressive thing about it as the interiors were so meticulously created that it genuinely looks like an old lived-in mansion complete with a wide assortment of artifacts that you’d find in an home resided in by an elderly person. There’s even a hidden room and the major renovation by the tenants to the upstairs is visually intoxicating. Ultimately though it becomes static and having at least a few scenes done outdoors, or in a different locale, would’ve helped.

Lancaster is excellent and comes-off seeming quite old even though he was really only in his late 50’s. His facials expressions and body language are enough to carry it even as his voice gets dubbed into Italian, which is weird at first, but eventually you get used to it. Still I didn’t understand why since it was shot in English that the dubbing even was necessary as they could’ve used subtitles for Italian viewers while allowing the authentic voices of the actors to remain.

Spoiler Alert!

The biggest disappointment though is the story, which essentially doesn’t lead to anything interesting. I sat through it convinced there was some subtle context beneath the surface that was sure to come out as I couldn’t believe these tenants could be as obnoxious as they were without intentionally doing it in order to drive the guy mad, so they could  take over the residence, steal his paintings, and resell them on the black market, at least that’s what I thought would be the twist, but instead there really isn’t any. Despite the way they annoy the Professor at every turn he still ends up appreciating their presence and calling them his ‘family’ while anyone else would’ve had them forcibly removed and the locks changed. No matter how lonely one might be dealing with these idiots and the massive upheaval that they brought including criminal elements and even sexual perversity would be considered NOT worth it to any rational person. The fact that the film acts like it is and goes as far as rehabilitating their image to that of ‘well meaning losers’ by the end made it corny and not worth the effort, as talky as it already is, to sit through.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 10, 1974

Runtime: 2 Hours 1 Minute

Rated R

Director: Luchino Visconti

Studio: Cinema International Corporation

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

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