Conversation Piece (1974)

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Aka Gruppo di famiglia in un inferno. There’s no sex life in the grave. Retired and lonely American University professor (Burt Lancaster) living in Rome rents out rooms in his palazzo to Bianca Brumonti (Silvana Mangano) a rather pushy marchesa, her teenage daughter Lietta (Claudia Marsani) and her boyfriend Stefano (Stefano Patrizi) and her own lover Konrad (Helmut Berger)…  He was too young to have learned this final nasty fact: grief is as precarious as anything else. Dreamed up by Luchino Visconti as a kind of updated La Dolce Vita, critiquing decadent society, this was co-written with regular collaborators Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi D’Amico.  It reunited him with his protegé Berger, and his avatar from Il Gattopardo, Lancaster, an iteration of literary critic Mario Praz (a specialist in romantic morbidity), who collects the titular paintings. Resplendent in furs from Fendi and ostentatious beauty, these unwelcome tenants turn the Professor’s life upside down against a backdrop of political chaos as this quasi-home invasion by the jet set takes a nasty turn while he is momentarily besotted by Konrad. This is a story of nostalgia and sorrow, a paean to lost love and beauty and art, a tone poem about modernity and death, the flailing of the elegant intellectual in a world losing to vulgarity. It’s a chamber piece likely due to the director’s recent stroke but still boasts opulence and telling detail with the dazzling Berger another incarnation of Tadzio, the angel of death from Death in Venice and Mangano revealed as a grotesqueVisconti at his most vulnerable and perhaps most charming. The way of progress is destruction

 

Ludwig (1973)

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Ludwig. He loved women. He loved men. He lived as controversially as he ruled. But he did not care what the world thought. He was the world. Munich 1864. Young Ludwig (Helmut Berger) is crowned King of Bavaria and sets up financing his composer friend Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard) whom he hopes will be his intimate friend. When Wagner betrays him with married Cosima von Bülow (Silvana Mangano) he leaves Munich but Ludwig continues to support him. Ludwig’s cousin Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider) wants to set him up with her sister Sophie (Sonia Petrovna) but it’s Elisabeth that Ludwig wants. He retreats into the world of imagination, soundtracked to Wagner’s compositions, even when the 1866 Austro-Prussian war happens and his brother Otto (John Moulder-Brown) and cabinet cannot persuade him to take a side. Despite his burgeoning homosexuality he is persuaded to marry Sophie by his advisor Count Durckheim (Helmut Griem). Following the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 when Bavaria loses a deal of sovereignty to Prussia, Otto is hospitalised to treat his declining mental health. Ludwig is absorbed by his extravagant building projects including Neuschwanstein Castle and becomes involved with actor Josef Kainz (Folker Bohnet) and starts hosting orgies. He ignores Elisabeth. Word of his behaviour spreads to the Bavarian cabinet so that by 1886 it’s time to draft in the doctors … Mad, bad and dangerous, that was Ludwig’s reputation and Luchino Visconti’s lush, beautiful account doesn’t exactly clarify matters about his decline and mysterious demise even though it creates a fully fleshed world, dictated by the preferences of the protagonist himself. Partly the confusion has to do with what version you have the opportunity to watch. With five different cuts varying from two to four hours in length (I have watched two, the latest being the 226 minutes version as Visconti intended) this is something of a frustration in anyone’s language;  and, at the point in Visconti’s career where decoration was slowly supplanting dramatic tension, the joy in seeing Berger and Schneider exchanging sweet nothingness is replaced by a kind of exhaustion. Beauty can do that to a person. Breathtaking? It’s all that. And less, and less, if you see the shorter cuts with some of the gay stuff removed for censorship reasons. To the detriment too of dramatic logic. Yet this is quite a rounded vision of Germany’s intellectual and cultural aspects in the latter half of the nineteenth century, bristling through a nation-state’s growing political personality as a kind of warped belle époque happens. Visconti had a stroke after filming which led to all manner of issues for a production that happened when his long-cherished Proust project failed to come to fruition.  It’s a tribute to his protegé Berger really, who totally inhabits the role from boy to man with remarkable, emotive physicality in this inscription to a sorrowful life (the Italian dub is voiced by Giancarlo Giannini); while Schneider was returning to the role of Sissi (which had made her famous throughout Europe in a series of much-loved films) as a favour to the director.  Written by Visconti with Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, this was shot on the original locations, which adds immensely to the overwhelming spectacle, a great immersion into big characters and the way they made their lives matter.

The Damned (1969)

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Aka Caduti degli dei or Götterdämmerung. It does no good to raise one’s voice when it’s too late, not even to save your soul. Wealthy industrialist family the Essenbecks have begun to do business with the Nazi Party.  The family patriarch Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (Albrecht Schoenhals) is murdered on the night of the Reichstag fire and the anti-Nazi vice president of the company Herbert Thalmann (Umberto Orsini) is framed. His wife Elizabeth (Charlotte Rampling) and their children are taken by the Gestapo. The family’s empire passes to the control of an unscrupulous relative, the boorish SA officer Konstantin (Reinhard Kolldehoff). Waiting in the wings are his son Günther (Renaud Verley) a sensitive and troubled student, and his nephew Martin (Helmut Berger), an amoral deviant playboy who molests his young cousin as well as a Jewish  girl. Martin is dominated by his possessive mother Sophie (Ingrid Thulin) the widow of Baron Joachim’s only son, a fallen WW1 hero. Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde) an employee of the family firm and Sophie’s lover, ascends in power despite his lowly social status, thanks to Sophie’s support and the SS officer and family relation Aschenbach (Helmut Griem) who pits family factions against each other to move their steel and munition works into state control … This is the secret Germany. Nothing is lacking. The dissipation of a wealthy German dynasty becomes an arc for the destruction of Germany and the rise of Nazism:  offset by a backdrop of decadence and perversion, Visconti’s operatic portrait of society gone rotten makes him the principal chronicler of that history in an Italian-German co-production. The cast is stunningly gorgeous – just look at Rampling! – enveloped in the exquisitely accessorised sets. The startling cinematic arrival of the equally lovely Herr Berger (who was seen briefly as a waiter in Visconti’s segment of Le streghe) in full drag as Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel is not to be quickly forgotten;  nor his incestuous sex scene with his mother. He embodies the narcissistic amorality at the core of the work which despite its luxuriousness is a critique of bourgeois collaborators standing by while their country is jackbooted. It is an explicitly Freudian work and transformed Bogarde into a European star. Written by Nicola Badalucco, Enrico Medioli and Visconti, this is the first of what is known as the director’s German trilogy, comprising Death in Venice and Ludwig, collectively a subjective account of that country’s terrible history told in devastating, beautiful imagery. Hugely successful and influential in its day, despite the horrors, you will gasp and swoon in equal measure at the shocking sumptuousness. Nazism, Gunther, is our creation. It was born in our factories, nourished with our money!

Rocco and his Brothers (1960)

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Tomorrow? Tomorrow? There is no tomorrow.  Widowed Rosaria Parondi (Katina Paxinou), an impoverished Italian mother, moves north to Milan with her close-knit family of five sons to find opportunity in the big city where oldest son Vincenzo (Spiros Focas) is getting engaged to the lovely Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale). But the two mothers dislike each other and the marriage is off.  A heated rivalry begins when two of Rosaria’s boys, soft-spoken Rocco (Alain Delon) and brutal Simone (Renato Salvatori), fall for Nadia (Annie Girardot), a beautiful prostitute with whom each has an affair. As each pursues Nadia, tension between them threatens to tear the family apart … Always at the movies! He lives on bread and movies. In a stunningly stylish and tragic epic portrait of Italian society after the boom, Luchino Visconti brings his preoccupations together – visually operatic, violent romanticism, literary and post-war realism, with brilliantly conceived characters finding their destiny against a backdrop of poverty and desperation. Time flies when every day’s the same. Wouldn’t seem so, but it’s true.  Written by Visconti with Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli and Massimo Franciosa, from a story by Visconti, d’Amico and Vasco Pratolini, inspired by Giovanni Testori’s novel Il ponte della Ghisolfa, this is an intense, overwhelming masterpiece, beautifully performed. See it and believe in cinema. What was beautiful and right has become wrong

The Leopard (1963)

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We were the leopards, the lions, those who take our place will be jackals and sheep, and the whole lot of us – leopards, lions, jackals and sheep – will continue to think ourselves the salt of the earth. As Garibaldi’s troops begin the unification of Italy in the 1860s, an aristocratic Sicilian family grudgingly adapts to the sweeping social changes undermining their way of life. The proud but pragmatic (yet feline) Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) allows his fickle war hero (who changes sides) nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), to marry Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), the beautiful daughter of gauche, bourgeois Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa) in order to maintain the family’s accustomed level of comfort and political clout when the fighting approaches their summer home in Sicily but the Prince is himself enchanted with her …  Adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s masterful novel by director Luchino Visconti and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Enrico Mediloi, Pasquale Festa Campanile and Massimo Franciosa, rarely have the obsessions of a novelist coincided so fortuitously with those of a filmmaker. The Marxist aristocrat Visconti had an intimate acquaintance with the notion of a society in transition and the magnificent central performance by Lancaster anchors the affect in nuance and specificity as he questions his identity and relevance.  The battle scenes that open the film are sunny, stunning and violent, shot almost entirely wide which gives them an appropriately epic quality. The final forty-five minute ball sequence during which the Prince dances with Angelica and Tancredi and the Prince’s daughters look on in variously anguished forms is tantalising:  there are shot choices that make you squeal with delight, almost as gloriously as Cardinale’s devastating laughter at the dinner table. Was there ever a more beautiful or seductive couple than Delon and Cardinale, reunited after Rocco and His Brothers? Not a lot happens:  the Prince realises his way of life (‘leopards and lions’) is changing and he is experiencing history as it unfolds. He discusses his ridiculous marriage with his priest Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli);  he observes a rigged plebiscite;  goes on holiday and a picnic;  hunts;  arranges Tancredi’s marriage to Angelica; walks home from the ball in the early hours of the morning and recognises the shabbiness of the decaying district over which he presides. The novel is wonderful and it is shocking to realise Di Lampedusa died before he could see it become a phenomenon in 1958. A magnificent, bewitching, bittersweet film adaptation made when cinema was great with an immersive score by Nino Rota that perfectly encapsulates a world in love with death. For the ages. We’re just human beings in a changing world.