dir: Luchino Visconti
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The Leopard, based on the novel of the same name by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, is a beautiful, languid film that slavishly follows the source material so as to not miss a single scintillating second of Sicilian magic. Only a Marxist director who was an aristocrat himself could so painstakingly reconstruct such a story about the decline of the aristocracy in Italy after the Risorgimento of the 1860s. So a classic story about the death of a way of life, of an entire people, becomes a classic film in the hands of the right director.
The acclaimed Italian director made plenty of other films, some as good and some worse (The Damned comes to mind), but few are as magnificent as The Leopard. The title itself comes from the coat of arms of the Prince Fabrizio di Salina’s prestigious and illustrious family. In the film he is played by Burt Lancaster, that most Italian of movie stars.
Oh, wait a second, he’s not Italian. How can he play a Sicilian aristocrat in that case? With great difficulty, perhaps?
Well, Burt Lancaster was of that generation of actors, like Kirk Douglas, like Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Anthony Quinn, Charlton Heston: guys that could play anything and usually did, and made it look easy. This isn’t even the only film he’s played an old Italian in. He played an even older one in Bertolucci’s epic shemozzle 1900 (Novecento). I can’t comment on whether he’s a great actor or not, but I can say he physically embodies the role of the Prince in a way that perfectly matches the character from the book and which greatly aids the film’s credibility.
Sure, he doesn’t get to deliver the actual dialogue (in the Criterion Collection version, it is an Italian dub, with everyone speaking in their native tongue and being dubbed afterwards, which is not unusual since all dialogue used to be dubbed in post-production all the time), but the way he carries himself and behaves beautifully matches the story and the character. He walks, speaks and expresses himself with the crushing weight of history on his shoulders, of his noble ancestors lamenting his lack of effort at preserving their power in a changing world.
He is the perfect patriarchal patrician: benevolent to his family, to the people who still act like his subjects, to the people arriving who intend to replace him. Deeply thoughtful, opposed to the superstitiousness and backwardness of ‘his’ people, he loves the lands his family ruled with a fierce love. He understands that there are forces of change at play that he cannot stop, but neither does he want to make it easy for them.
Though he has a large family of his own, the apple of his eye is his nephew Tancredi, played by that sexy motherfucker Alain Delon, who doesn’t let the fact that he’s French stand in the way of playing the rakish Sicilian character. Tancredi, as you might predict, embodies the new era: he’s broke, but he’s adventurous, and he’s excited about the changes coming, and seeks to be a part of it.
Early in the film he’s off to war to aid Garibaldi and the other reprobates fighting against the old order. Though the Prince worries about him, he doesn’t try to stop him at all. They have the crucial conversation together prior to his departure about how for things to remain the same (as in, if the privileged status of the aristos is to be maintained), things will have to change. In other words, for everything to remain the same, everything has to change.
An interesting paradox, taken directly from the book. In fact most every piece of dialogue is taken directly from the book, representing a slavish desire to replicate the exact wonderfulness of the text. It is a very impressive book, after all. It is one that was taught to my generation at school, begrudgingly read and only eventually appreciated long after the sticks and carrots of education were forgotten.
The richness of the story and the writing come through in the film in a way that is neither laborious nor pretentious. Conversations between the Prince and his priest, the Prince and Tancredi, the Prince and pretty much everyone have an incredible quality that comes across throughout. His exquisite scene with the character of Angelica (the gorgeous Claudia Cardinale) caps off the film in fine style.
The Sicilian landscape, instead of looking like the dusty wasteland that it is, is made to look like a golden, pastoral paradise, where even the dust glows. The entire film is shot and composed in such an opulent manner that it is almost surprising. These days they can overamp colours in scenes with the pressing of a few keys on a keyboard in post-production in a process known as colour maximisation. Back then it required superior film stock like Technicolour, and a cinematographer with a great eye, which The Leopard had in the form of Giuseppe Rotunno: a great cinematographer who often worked with Fellini as well.
Ha! As if this review wasn’t pretentious enough already! As well, Nino Rota, another long time Fellini contributor, provides the excellent score for the flick, bringing out the elegant themes and adding to the film’s splendour.
We see the Prince at his best and his less than best, as we follow his around over the course of a year. We see the radical changes going on in Italy mostly as the Prince finds out about them, and through his reactions to the people around him. The occasion of a plebiscite (like a referendum) is used to great farcical effect to emphasise how the movement to a republic isn’t going to make the system any less one of corruption and patronage.
Tancredi, wounded in one of the important battles, starts off as a radical, in his uncle’s eyes, and ends up part of the new establishment. It doesn’t even click on an irony meter that any story or flick about revolutions has, as its essence a three part progression: start off as the rebel, then fight the corrupt powers that be, then become the corrupt powers that be. Such a scenario obviously wasn’t lost on the author, nor on Marxist radical – aristocrat Visconti, but here it’s more humorous than it is a blanket condemnation.
In fact, the film doesn’t really try to get us to condemn this class or this Prince and his snobbish ways at all. We come to admire and adore him, to a certain extent, even if we can’t agree with him. He’s often very contemptuous of the people around him, and at one stage utters to a confidant something along the lines of “that’s what happens when cousins marry” when looking at some girls chatting excitedly.
His scathing opinion of the brutish Sicilian populace is nothing compared to the exclusive contempt he maintains for the rising mercantile class that seeks to replace the aristocracy. This rising class, who in the book were referred to as ‘arrivistes’ or ‘parvenu’ are represented by the grubby and rapacious Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa). The classic phrase pertaining to a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing is represented in fine form by Don Calogero. In their dealings, the Prince maintains a genteel veneer beneath which seethes unutterable contempt for the man and everything that he embodies. But the Prince needs him.
You see, Tancredi may be handsome and landed gentry and all, but he’s broke. He’s as broke as me the weekend after payday. He has the title, but needs money. Don Calogero has money, but wants respectability. It is anything but a marriage of convenience. It is perfect synchronicity.
Don Calogero’s daughter Angelica is ready, willing and able, and has passion and beauty enough to excite even an old reprobate like the Prince. In his dealings with her, in his approval of and facilitation of the marriage betwixt Tancredi and Angelica, you know he’s secretly wishing it was him getting her instead.
Despite his age the Prince is still a vital and lecherous old bastard. At film’s beginning we see him visiting a local prostitute, later on he justifies it to a priest by saying after so many years of marriage and so many children, his extremely devout wife has never even let him see her navel, let alone anything else. At first he is aroused by Angelica’s very presence, and the sensual charge she brings to the room, but by the time he has his exquisite scene with her at the opulent ball that ends the film, we know his longing is really for his youth. He mourns and hungers for a time that can never return, for a time when mortality did not define his existence. And we mourn with him.
The word ‘masterpiece’ is bandied about the way strangers bandy about bags of lollies whilst leaning out of open car doors. It probably applies to this amazing, languid, compassionate, beautiful film, but it is not perfect. The synching of the dialogue, and the fact that major characters aren’t speaking their own dialogue does distract, at least it distracts me. If the dialogue had been done properly, this film would be perfect.
As it stands, it’s only a great film, instead.
9 times I’m unsure that anyone’s survival is implicit in their desperation out of 10
“All Sicilian expression, even the most violent, is really a wish for death. Our sensuality, wish for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings, a hankering after extinction. Our laziness, our spiced and drugged sherbets, a desire for voluptuous immobility, that is... for death again.” – Prince Fabrizio Salina, The Leopard.