I adore broad, sweeping statements. Here goes: I do not think any film, of all the films I have seen (conservatively, a couple thousand, maybe three), has had a worst last thirty seconds than Conversation Piece. It’s so incredible, so incredibly bad, I can’t believe the cast and crew didn’t start giggling when a) reading the script, b) shooting the scene, c) editing the scene, and d) seeing the scene. It’s really that bad.
I could make some comment about Conversation Piece being worth seeing just for that ending, but that’s unfair to the rest of the film. Conversation Piece is really long. It’s only two hours, but it’s all people talking–and as a continuous scene, instead Visconti breaks it up with no transition, which disorientates the viewer for a bit at the beginning, but then he or she gets ready for these cuts. For a while, the pace of the film is fine, probably the first hour, but the second crawls by, since it’s not just the events that take place off screen, it’s the changes in the characters.
I’ve never seen Burt Lancaster and Visconti’s more famous collaboration, The Leopard (out of laziness, I have it somewhere), and I rented this film because of Lancaster. He’s reliable, if rarely exciting. Unfortunately, that reliability plays through in his character in Conversation Piece. Besides the bad flashback scenes, much of the film–except when Lancaster is alone with his de facto ward, played by Helmut Berger (who was in The Godfather, Part III and “Dynasty”!)–is Lancaster reacting to what’s going on around him. When he announces his personal revelation to the audience in the last ten minutes, the audience has known it the whole time–because, otherwise, there wouldn’t have been a story.
It’s not a bad film and–perplexingly–it couldn’t be any different, but I knew everything it was going to be about in the first fifteen minutes. Except the stupid last shot… no one could have guessed that one.
Directed by Luchino Visconti; screenplay by Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Enrico Medioli and Visconti, based on a story by Medioli; director of photography, Pasqalino de Santis; edited by Ruggero Mastroianni; music by Franco Mannino; produced by Giovanni Bertolucci; released by Gaumont.
Starring Burt Lancaster (Professor), Silvana Mangano (Bianca Brumonti), Helmut Berger (Konrad), Claudia Marsani (Lietta), Stefano Patrizi (Stefano), Elvira Cortese (Erminia), Dominique Sanda (Mother) and Claudia Cardinale (Wife).