Conversation Piece (Luchino Visconti / Italy-France, 1974):
(Gruppo di Famiglia in un Interno)

The (incorrect) English translation suggests prolix stasis, but a rich image remains the building block from which Luchino Visconti extracts a twilight state of mind, namely his own. The Scope frame is filled first with serpentine cardiogram tape, then with a painting examined through a magnifying glass -- history professor Burt Lancaster contemplates the exquisite canvas, then Silvana Mangano in a fur-trimmed coat and Dietrich eyebrows, a different sort of artistic relic. La Mangano seeks a spot in Rome to stash her boy-toy, the professor's old penthouse fits the bill; Lancaster protests until a slow zoom introduces Helmut Berger as the gigolo, scarfed and bereted like Dargelos in Les Enfants Terribles to enhance a certain resemblance to Joe Dallesandro. The professor is an anachronistic aesthete, "neurotic, slightly disturbed" and at ease solely in his luxurious home, windows are opened to reveal a sunless pale sky. Modern times shove their way in, the ceiling literally cracks and crumbles: Berger is a graduate of the '68 movement, militant in his belief that "the richer they are, the lousier they are," but still with room for Mozart and 18th-century painting; Mangano's spirited daughter (Claudia Marsani) and her beau (Stefano Patrizi) hold a very tasteful pot orgy when not breezing in and out of the rich interiors. Lancaster guffaws at the immense generational divide. "Is that funny?" Marsani asks. "Tragic, really" is his response, but Visconti's mood is one of fond acceptance, and his film is a spry drawing room comedy with roots in My Man Godfrey -- Mangano and her clan are the spoiled young guests who bounced up and down in the bedspreads of The Leopard, but their invasion precipitates less a breakdown than an autumnal clarification of life. With clarity comes freedom, the freedom to be able to serenely film Berger's bare ass in the shower, or to evoke youth with an arching track through a living room (with gracious guests Dominique Sanda in close-up and Claudia Cardinale in slow-motion) and death with a circular pan around a wall of paintings. Thus freed, Visconti can envision his expiration with as placid a composition as any in classical art. With Elvira Cortese, Jean-Pierre Zola, and Romolo Valli.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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