But thou, dear, hide my body with thy veil,
And with thy raiment cover foot and head…
And now for God’s sake kiss me once and twice
And let me go; for the night gathers me,
And in the night shall no man gather fruit.

– Algernon Charles Swinburne1

Above all, this is a film about veils being lowered and lifted. A cloth draped over the cage of a myna bird, which seems to know only one word but squawks it over and over. A voluminous white towel draped over the body of Eurotrash golden boy Helmut Berger – “in a swirling movement Dietrich couldn’t have improved on”2 – as he emerges naked from his shower. Bridal veils afloat about the face of the Professor’s late wife (Claudia Cardinale) or veils trailing from the bonnet of his long-dead mother (Dominique Sanda) who appear, ghost-like, in dream visions as the gauze wafts and billows in a spring breeze.

Looking back at the oeuvre of the aristocrat and Marxist Luchino Visconti, Gilbert Adair described Gruppo di famiglia in un interno (Conversation Piece, 1974) as “perhaps the most personal, the most (obliquely) autobiographical film of his entire career”.3 Yet has there ever been a film that hints at more but shows us less? Audiences seduced by the sheer operatic luxuriance of Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963) or Morte a Venezia (Death in Venice, 1971) are apt to feel bewildered by his next-to-last film, which takes place inside one apartment in Rome and involves just a handful of actors. Even the skyline we can see from the terrace, with the dome of St Peter’s in the distance, is all too obviously a backdrop. The basic setup – in which a reclusive elderly aesthete (Burt Lancaster) gets hoodwinked into sharing his quarters with some bratty and promiscuous teens, scions of the vulgar nouveau riche – sounds more like a soft-porn Neil Simon comedy than one of Visconti’s usual literary classics. To put it very bluntly, what in hell is going on?

Visconti made Gruppo di famiglia as a case of faute de mieux, while recovering from a set of traumas that might have killed a lesser man. He had suffered a paralysing stroke while shooting his magnum opus Ludwig (1973) – about the art-obsessed 19th century King of Bavaria – and was still largely confined to a wheelchair. His lover and muse Helmut Berger (the star of Ludwig) had publicly and humiliatingly left him for the actress and model Marisa Berenson. Several large-scale projects – notably a film of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu – had stalled beyond any hope of recovery. This small and rather claustrophobic tale of a man who finds himself isolated and frightened in his old age was probably the best or only film Visconti could have made at that moment.

Burt Lancaster plays a man for whom life, in its essence, has already been lived. Sealed hermetically in his womb of 18th century art and music – paintings by Greuze and concerti by Mozart – the Professor was modelled, in part, on the Italian literary critic and art historian Mario Praz, whose 1971 monograph Conversation Pieces gave the film its English title. Yet Lancaster said he played the role as a mirror of the director himself. He recalled how Visconti told him: “It’s my life, I’m a very lonely man, I was never capable of love, I never had a family”.4 With his finicky fuss-budget gestures and his perpetual stoop, the Professor is an unprecedented role for an actor of such dazzling physical élan. If his majestic Prince of Salina in The Leopard was an avatar for Visconti in his prime, his performance here is an echo of Visconti weakened and diminished.

As befits the decrepit state of its protagonist, Gruppo di famiglia is “a film in which virtually everything occurs too late for any decisive transformations”.5 We know as if by instinct the Professor will never act on his nascent homoerotic attraction to Konrad, the hedonistic bisexual gigolo played by Berger. The kept boy of a rich and vulgar woman (Silvana Mangano), Konrad is also having sex with his mistress’ daughter (Claudia Marsani) and her boyfriend (Stefano Patrizi). Berger’s playing of this role verges on self-parody – flouncing about in long and trailing Fendi fur coats and sporting such 1970s sartorial quirks as Yves Saint-Laurent sweaters tucked inside his trousers with the belt showing. (Incredibly, Berger almost makes this look work!) Yet any erotic tension between Konrad and the Professor is not pre-sexual – as it would be in a tale of “coming out” – but defiantly post-sexual. It is clear that nobody is ever going to do much about it.

The world outside the apartment is present only at a very great remove; it is an ugly reality to be avoided when and if at all possible. We hear a trickle of sleazy jet-set gossip (most of it about Konrad) and the odd blast of tacky ’70s pop. The hit “Testarda io”, sung by Iva Zanicchi, becomes the soundtrack for a rather posed and decorous ménage à trois by the young people. We also hear rumours of an attempted far-right coup masterminded by Mangano’s absent and unseen husband. The Professor warns the young ones (who don’t listen) that fascism today is more dangerous than before “because it is camouflaged”. Fifty years on from the making of Gruppo di famiglia, the electoral victories of Silvio Berlusconi, Matteo Salvini, and Giorgia Meloni have proved him sadly right. It is safe to say the politics of Italy today would make an aristocratic Marxist like Visconti weep with shame.

It is during her vaguely incestuous threesome that a nubile teenage Marsani stands naked in front of the Professor and quotes some lines from W. H. Auden: 

Life is short, so enjoy,
Whatever contact your flesh
May at the moment crave:
There’s no sex life in the grave.6

That may indeed be true. Yet it sounds like cold comfort to a man who is already in it.

Gruppo di famiglia in un interno/Conversation Piece (1974 Italy/France 116 mins)

Prod Co: Rusconi Film/Gaumont Prod: Giovanni Bertolucci Dir: Luchino Visconti Scr: Enrico Medioli, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Luchino Visconti Phot: Pasqualino de Santis Mus: Franco Mannino Ed: Ruggero Mastroianni Prod Des: Mario Garbuglia

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Helmut Berger, Silvana Mangano, Claudia Marsani, Stefano Patrizi, Romolo Valli, Claudia Cardinale, Dominique Sanda


  1. Algernon Charles Swinburne, Atalanta in Calydon, 1885: https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/15378/pg15378.html.
  2. Pauline Kael, “Lazarus Laughs” in When the Lights Go Down, London, Marion Boyars, 1980, 35.
  3. Gilbert Adair, The Real Tadzio: Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’ and the Boy Who Inspired It, Cambridge, Short Books, 2001, 88.
  4. Laurence Schifano, Luchino Visconti: The Flames of Passion, trans. William S. Byron, London, Collins, 1990, 404.
  5. Joe McElhaney, Luchino Visconti and the Fabric of Cinema, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2021, 190.
  6. W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, “The Entertainment of the Senses”, quoted in Kael, 38.

About The Author

David Melville is a Teaching Fellow in Film Studies and Literature at the University of Edinburgh Centre for Open Learning. He teaches courses on Michael Powell and Dark Fairy Tales and is currently working on a book about Cinema and Queer Spectatorship.

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