Jun 7, 2013

Conversation Piece

Undoubtedly Italian maestro auteur Luchino Visconti’s most modern work, Conversation Piece (1974) aka Gruppo di famiglia in un interno, is one of a few European films that brilliantly looks at the striking difference between the filmmaker’s own outmoded zeitgeist and that of the post-WWII generation, most specifically the ultimately failed generation associated with the leftist 1968 student movement. Centering around a retired professor of the extremely introverted and solitary sort whose world is turned upside down when a perverse postmodern ‘family’ comprised of a brazenly bitchy Italian marchesa and her crude yet charismatic ‘kept man’/lover, daughter and her boyfriend barge in and take over the aged academic's house and life, Conversation Piece illustrates the absurdity that follows when refined classical and traditional Europe confronts the decidedly decadent and vulgar post-WWII Europe of the new, which sought to revamp the continent but only sped up its damning demise as the living and breathing multicultural cadaver it is today. Starring Visconti’s much younger (by nearly four decades) lover Helmut Berger in the role of a debauched quasi-commie revolutionary who has morally fallen to the point where he pawns his wayward Wienerschnitzel to a contemptible capitalist rich bitch of the superficially right-wing sort, Conversation Piece was a very personal work for director Visconti in that it acted as the filmmaker’s thoughts on the 1968 student movement (which, not like Pasolini, he withheld up until that point), as well as his romantic relationship with the film’s Austrian star, with the character of the retired professor acting as a stand-in for the Guido maestro, and thus his final message to a world that has ultimately passed him by. Additionally, Conversation Piece is also recognized as a thinly veiled criticism of the sort of spoiled and salacious jetsetters like the sordid and superficial sort featured in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), who Visconti does not seem to have a grain of sympathy for, while his sympathy, if not confusedly so, for the 1986-ers is quite unmistakable. Suffering from a cerebral hemorrhage in July 1972 that left his left-side paralyzed and his entire body ultimately confined to a wheelchair, Conversation Piece, which takes place in a handful yet lavishly and intricately stylized rooms, is a celluloid cabinet piece that was clearly setup so the crippled auteur could manage direct the film in relative comfort and practicability. Produced by Rusconi Film, which was owned by a well known right-wing publisher, Conversation Piece caused Visconti to catch a lot of criticism by quasi-Marxist types, yet it is surely not a ‘rightist’ film in the slightest and as his great fan Rainer Werner Fassbinder recognized in an interview, “they gave him more leeway than the leftists.” If anything, Conversation Piece portrays a world where both leftist and rightist have turned into terrorists of a similar stripe and both ends of the political spectrum are mutually enslaved by the mixed up mores of the so-called sexual revolution, as well as a country and continent facing complete and utter uncertainty due to suffering a certain sociopolitical schizophrenia as caused by two opposing and vastly different generations sharing strikingly different values in every regard, be it taste in art or women. 

 Retired American professor (Burt Lancaster), a Yankee-born yet Roman-bred man with an Italian mother who hid commies and Jews in the home he now lives in during the Second World War, lives a rather solitary and even antisocial life where his only friends are old books and fine art of the rather expensive sort. While now living a lonely existence of merely waiting for his inevitable death, the professor has lived a full life as a man who has traveled the world, fought in the Second World War, and was even once married, but for whatever reason, at some point, he decided he was no longer interested in a social life and escaped in his post-professional studies and collecting of expensive art, even spending a wealth of his time staring at details of paintings via a magnifying glass. Of course, that all changes when emotionally grotesque yet physically beauteous Italian marchesa, Marquise Bianca Brumonti (great Italian diva Silvana Mangano), the wanton wife of a rich right-wing industrialist, shows up to his large house and cons the professor into renting an upstairs apartment to the bitchy broad and her unconventional family. The apartment is mainly for Bianca’s German ‘boyfriend’ Konrad Huebel (Helmut Berger) or what she describes as “my kept boy…paid lover,” an ex-member of the commie Baader-Meinhof Group who still flirts with far-left politics, even if he screws rich right-wing women, who also happens to be married to a 'fascist' industrialist. Also staying at the apartment are Bianca’s daughter Lietta Brumonti (Claudia Marsani) and her boyfriend Stefano (Stefano Patrizi), also the son of a rich right-wing industrialist. The professor is repulsed by the odd family due to their pushy and vulgar persuasions, open bisexuality, and vehement hatred toward one another, yet he cannot help but feel intrigued by their company and rather 'unconventional' ways. As Konrad tells the professor, his lover’s family is “cheap, cheap inside,” but, of course, he has no problem selling his flesh to them at a rather high monetary price, funding his lavish and lecherous lifestyle. Despite being repelled by their behavior, the professor somehow becomes a father figure for the ‘modern family,’ even symbolically ‘adopting’ Konrad as a son, who like himself, has an interest in fine art and Mozart and even studied at the university before his life-destroying transformation into a criminal revolutionary. As Konrad tells the professor when asked why he quit studying art history, he states, “Those were the times…68…I threw myself into the student movement…deeper than most…got in trouble and had to run…god knows how I ended up in the world I am now.” Despite his terrorist proclivities, Konrad ultimately proves to be the only decent member of the ‘family,’ although Bianca’s daughter Lietta does show some minor sympathy, even if she is a spoiled brat who always gets whatever she wants. In the end, a crude yet strangely kind kraut commie dies under dubious circumstances and leaves the professor emotionally and physically ill and his apartment in pieces.  Ultimately, the professor was right to suspect that personal relationships would lead to misery and heartbreak.

 While his penultimate work, Conversation Piece might as well be considered Visconti’s final film and 'filmic farewell' because it is clearly the work of an elderly man who no longer understands the people of his homeland, but could not leave this world without giving his opinion how things have changed in Italy and Europe in general. Although the character of the professor was based on the real-life Italian literary critic Mario Praz (who ironically faced a similar disruption of his peace and quiet a few months after the film was released), the character is clearly a stand-in for director Visconti, so it is no surprise that his lover Helmut Berger played the role of the son figure/political radical. Visconti, a man who expressed his inherent masochism in films like Death in Venice (1971), was known to be publicly criticized and insulted by his much younger boy toy Helmut Berger and this dysfunctional relationship certainly radiates vividly throughout Conversation Piece, a film directed by an old maestro, who unlike most people his age, does not besmirch and degrade the younger generation, even if they are portrayed as dandy degenerates of the vivacious vulgarian sort. Undoubtedly an idiosyncratic work among Visconti’s cinematic oeuvre, in part due to the director’s crippling health, Conversation Piece is quite different from the auteur’s later aristocratic period pieces that escape in the past in that it confronts a perturbing present. Were Visconti alive today, one can only wondering what he would think of the contemporary generations of Italians who seem to have little interest in arts and revolutionary politics, let alone actively getting involved in either. Featuring unbecoming bitches who will, as Konrad states, “break your balls,” Conversation Piece portrays an Italy where the rich are just as debauched as the leftist hippies and the revolutionary left has been crushed by the very same sort of terrorism itself employed. In an interview with gossip columnist/journalist Boze Hadleigh, Visconti stated quite stoically when the interviewer remarked “the world is your oyster” that, “No. (shakes head, smiling.) Not now. Not in a wheelchair. But soon. When this picture is completed, I will watch it. And like everyone else, I will forget there is a wheelchair.” And, indeed, one almost forgets that an elderly and crippled gay aristocrat directed Conversation Piece, one of only a handful of both Italian and European films that manages to act as a bridge between classic European cinema and that of the counter-culture generation and if anyone could do it, it was Luchino Visconti, the old man that managed to bone a very young Helmut Berger. 

-Ty E


Unknown said...

Needless to say this is the best review I have ever read about this highly underrated movie. Lancaster and Berger are incredible in this one. 'Au revoir, Marquis de merde!!'

Fox said...

Love that you guys are still going strong and prolifically so! can't wait to plow through these new essays.

Also... thanks for championing the work of Fassbinder when so other few people see to anymore.