Blu-ray Review: CONVERSATION PIECE (Raro Video USA)

J Hurtado, Contributing Writer
Luchino Visconti's penultimate film, Conversation Piece, is an action packed condensation of his career in a mere two hours. The film follows a wealthy American ex-pat played by Visconti favorite Burt Lancaster (The Leopard), as his life is time and again interrupted by a family who insinuate themselves into his life. The continuing shenanigans of this set of upper crust vulgarians turn The Professor's quiet existence into a constant undulating barrage of intrigue, mystery, and wake him up from his own insulated life.

There is an interesting comparison to be drawn between Visconti's masterpiece, The Leopard, and this later work. In The Leopard, Lancaster plays an Italian nobleman who is attempting to shield his family from an increasingly hostile political situation by sheltering them in his estate, while in Conversation Piece, the roles are largely reversed. In the latter film, Lancaster's Professor seeks quiet solitude away from the outside world only to be invaded by the bold and ruthless machinations of a noble family who end up forcing themselves upon him. In Conversation Piece, Lancaster's life is interrupted not only by the newness of these brash, rude, bourgeois, but also literally interrupted by the loud remodeling they insist on doing to the upstairs apartment which they rent from him. They are literally tearing his life apart from the inside, out.

As desperately as The Professor attempts to continue shielding himself from this perpetual nuisance, it continues to become more and more invasive, eventually involving him with the authorities and taking some odd turns. In the process, The Professor begins to remember all of those things from which he hides and the memories that he had long since abandoned. A new family forms, as these intruders frequently and insistently attempt to become friends, and none of this is done subtly. At one point, the youngest girl even speaks about The Professor and calls him her new father. He is hesitant to take up the role, but feels a kinship with these people once he realizes that everyone runs from something, and he is merely trying to outrun his own history. He eventually realizes that great truth, "no matter where you go, there you are."

If you think about it, Conversation Piece, is something of an inverted mysterious stranger story, not unlike Pasolini's Teorema or Miike's Visitor Q. In this case, it isn't a single stranger coming into the life of a dysfunctional family and turning it inside out, it is instead a crazed family intruding on the life of a single man and making it worth living again. There is certainly something to be said for the rudeness of the interlopers, their lack of tact is the kind of rude that can only be possessed by the incredibly wealthy and worry-free, they do him a service without even realizing it. The professor, after years of solitude and self-imposed detachment from the world, is now free and has something to live for that is outside of himself.

There is really a lot going on in this film, and not just under the surface. Conversation Piece rumbles along, at time quite loudly, with one set piece and vivid story after another. For a two-hour and ten minute film, there is very little fat, and I'm frankly shocked that it hasn't had a proper release in the US until Raro decided to release it. Stars Burt Lancaster and Helmut Berger steal the show with several surprisingly tender moments that I didn't see coming, but the softening of The Professor's demeanor is well played and completely believable. This is among the finest films that Raro Video USA have released to date, and I really enjoyed it, definitely recommended.

The Disc:

I really wish that Raro would do simultaneous Blu-ray and DVD releases. Conversation Piece was released on DVD less than a month ago, and so I'd be pretty sore if I'd picked it up then only to find out that a Blu-ray was coming down the pike so quickly. That being said, the Blu-ray looks excellent, probably their best yet. There is none of the spottiness that plagued the Di Leo box set, the image is quite nice. The colors in the film are deliberately very warm, which might be off putting at first, but after a few minutes you get used to it. Raro have included both the Italian dub and the original English language track, both of which sound fine, but I prefer the English track, which is the original language. You can also watch the film in either language with English subtitles translated from the Italian dubbing script.

In terms of extra material, there is some good stuff, but not a lot overall. There is an interview with film critic/screenwriter Alessandro Bencivenni which explains the significance of Conversation Piece in Visconti's career as well as placing it in the proper context of mid-70's Italian cinema. The other, perhaps more impressive, extra is a fantastic several page essay from Mark Rappaport, which expands on the ideas in Bencivenni's interview and adds to the film in a wonderful way.

I was expecting to be bored by this, but Conversation Piece really lit me up in a way that drama doesn't often do. Definitely check it out!
Special Features:
- Interview with Alessandro Bencivenni
- Fully illustrated booklet by Mark Rappaport
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