What is an Italian Film Retrospective without a Visconti?
I became a fan when I got hold of a copy of "Death in Venice" which was a curious piece to start Italian film appreciation with. The ponderous movie was bereft of spoken words, but the effect was like a gripping squeeze in the gut. Since then, there had been several great titles on my list: "Rocco and His Brothers", "The Leopard", his last film "The Innocent" (1976) and some other lesser known titles that I somehow managed to collect from travels overseas, as well as "pasalubongs" (gifts) from relatives living abroad. (Oh, yes, I made them know what I wanted every time. LOL)
As for Mr. Burt Lancaster, I have to admit that I am not such a huge fan, as he is more known for his "strong man" image; his muscles and the winning smile that took Deborah Kerr's breath away. But at the latter stage of his career, he would invest on non-studio films and accept projects from art directors (he did 2 for Visconti, and 1 for Bertolucci) at a film that doesn't come close to his Hollywood pay! One of these films is "Conversation Piece" (1974) which was filmed in Rome.
A retired professor (Burt Lancaster) who has taken sanctuary in a lavish Rome apartment (they call it "palazzo") where he is accompanied by his precious painting collection, books, and a housekeeper named Erminia. He is used to a life of solitude. One day, he finds a rude and insistent marchesa (an Italian noble woman), Madam Bianca Brumonti (Silvana Mangano) who forces him to agree to rent out the unused room just above his - only for a year. But within a day, he finds the rented flat disassembled. Furthermore, he gets to meet the marchesa's daughter Laetia and her boyfriend Stefano - and a young man named Konrad (Helmut Berger) who was to stay in the refurbished room above!
But the professor soon learns the price for such rental. He'd wake up in the wee hours from careless foots steps, fisticuffs, loud clanking sounds, and music turned up so loudly. He welcomed the people from hell! He found himself inexplicably involved in the lives of the strangest, rudest, most vulgar strangers. Konrad turned out to be the marchesa's paid lover - a "keptboy", who conveniently "played around" with the marchesa's daughter and her boyfriend. Madam Brumonti is wife of a rich right-leaning industrialist.
To the nameless professor, there was something intriguing about Konrad who knew his paintings, and classical music. But then, aren't all high-flying gigolos? As the professor (who was never named) got drawn to the frivolous lives of these people, he became aware of the sinister credentials of charming Konrad.
There are plenty of queries in the narrative structure of "Conversation Piece". For one, it must have been that era? Or Europe? But if a stranger insisted on renting out a room that isn't for rent, I'd have her arrested for trespassing! Or she gets a kick in the butt! An ex-soldier who was a doctor of science and a professor can't be easily pushed around by a spoiled histrionic bunch, can he? Yet despite all of their machinations, he would accommodate them; cleaning after their mess, their "blood", and even covering them up during a police investigation. Why such devotion to a thoughtless bunch?
Despite all the loose ties in the narrative, I was deeply engaged. As one of the characters said, "I don't like it, but it fascinates me!"
Moreover, the film is replete with enchanting lines; e.g. Re: solitude: "Crows fly in flocks, while the eagle soars alone!"
Austrian actor Helmut Berger eventually moved on to bigger Visconti films: "The Damned" and a titular role in "Ludwig". He became Visconti's lover in a relationship that lasted for 12 years! Visconti was said to view Berger as the epitome of a "demonic, insane and sexually perverted" man. As a matter of fact, Berger often portrayed anguished souls (like Konrad in "Conversation Piece") and similar sinister villains. There were moments in this film where Berger reminded me of an earlier Ewan McGregor ("The Pillow Book", "Trainspotting"), that decadent, exciting persona. As for Silvia Mangano, I find her too campy, too wired up. And I thought the madam didn't drink coffee? Aren't the rich schooled in the art of propriety or refinement?