All of Visconti's films, even those dealing with history more or less remote, chronicle realistically the fate of individuals thrown into conflict with societies with which Visconti himself in some manner, either directly or through class ties, identifies.
Identification, on the other hand, has always been a problem for Visconti; he has never carried it as far as recognition, inasmuch as there has really never been a character in his films that resembled its inventor. With Death In Venice the theme of loneliness begins to dominate, but one feels that his own experiences form the emotional base, not the source material. But now he quotes Flaubert's "Madame Bovary c'est moi" when asked about his latest film, adding "He who tries to share an idea, cannot but do it through himself." A Gestalt approach to film-making is evident in [Conversation Piece]…. It is tempting to compare his own life to that of its protagonist in the pattern of retreat from social contact that characterizes both….
As a former communist and current sympathizer, positions are expected of him which he refuses to assume. Conversation Piece depicts Italian society in its decadence, but takes no sides, except on a purely human level. Practically every character in the film is both scum and victim; the shells peel off as we descend to the hell in those souls in our function as voyeurs. (p. 55)
As a concentrated introduction to the problems of today's Italy Conversation Piece is especially useful. Social, political, psychological, industrial, interpersonal, and economic aspects of the current crisis are reflected in the central situation of the film, which is the conflict of the generations. But it would be wrong to consider it important as a symptom of Italian society alone; in fact Visconti's fatalistic prognosis concerns us all….
And yet one does not walk away from this work with a feeling of defeat. It is clear that, like his protagonist, Visconti is both repulsed and attracted by the ascending generation, and like him he attempts to come to terms with the sadness they inspire. He does not juxtapose, nor try condescendingly to understand. Here is a man at the end of his life who finds that everything he has believed in means nothing to those who follow. Just as his films have been criticized for a lack of concern for the answers society is seeking, so his professor finds no answers for his own ailing. One feels that a film about loneliness has hardly ever been made by a similarly lonely man….
For a film which is basically a play inasmuch as it takes place in a single location and depends largely on dialogue, Visconti has succeeded in creating a style admirably suited to his concern. In dark browns and ochres and elaborate turn-of-the-century decor, paying minute attention to detail, both decorative and aural, and by delicately restraining the acting of the principals, he has underlined the claustrophobia and loneliness, and the hesitant steps, alas disastrous, to escape both. (p. 56)
"The old," Visconti says, "may well try to understand the young and to love them, but the gap between the generations cannot really be bridged. All I want to do with this film is show their relationship in all its sadness. I try to show the world the way it is. The old are either removed from it or have gone back to fascism. The young are corrupt or are exposed to corruption at every step. At the same time they are beautiful and attractive, and their corruption is not a conscious one. Life is short; one must live it without shame. It may end in a few minutes." He quotes Auden, as he does in the film. Because this is a film about impotence. Not an impotent film. (pp. 56-7)
Gideon Bachmann, "Film Reviews: 'Conversation Piece'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1975 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Winter, 1975–76, pp. 55-7.