Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. It is the tale, stretching over decades, of the fall of a royal Sicilian family after the Risorgimento revolution of 1860 and the subsequent Unification of Italy. Visconti narrows the focus down to a scant couple of years.
Burt Lancaster is the Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, who will spend a fair portion of the movie trying to insure his family’s well-being in a time of a rising middle class while at the same time see to the future of Italy. Never abusing his power, he urges his subjects to vote for Unification, even though he realizes that it will give increased power to people like the boorish nouveau riche Mayor (Paolo Stoppa) of the town where his family vacations. Fabrizio’s favorite nephew, Tancredo (Alain Delon) falls in love with the Mayor’s beautiful daughter, Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), and Fabrizio does his best to move the relationship along, even though it means breaking the heart of his poor daughter, Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi).
Tancredo’s arc is particularly telling. At the movie’s opening, he joins the forces of the rebel Garibaldi, seeking to overthrow the Bourbon government. Shortly afterward, he joins the Royal Army, seeing no irony in this. By the end of the movie, he is a civilian preparing for a career in politics, and applauding the dawn execution of rebels still faithful to the defeated Garibaldi.
The height of the movie is the dress ball that introduces Angelica to high society before her marriage to Tancredo. Fabrizio walks through the ball with a shroud of melancholy about him; he knows that this will not last, and he finds the company of the Mayor and manufactured war heroes to be tedious and upsetting. He even realizes, in one affecting scene, that he is dying, but he still must last out the night for Tancredo and Angelica, and the future they represent.
That ball scene, about 45 minutes long, is one of the most gorgeous I have ever seen, with beautiful, accurate costumes that dazzle and beguile. I was constantly reminded of the similar scene that ends Sokurov’s Russian Ark, so handsome is it. It is small wonder that this movie bankrupted its studio, but the result is so gorgeous, it really deserves to be seen in its original Technicolor, restored beautifully in the Criterion blu-ray.
Titanus Films knew they were going to need outside money to even begin to film The Leopard, and there were probably more than a few heart attacks when Visconti first decided he wanted Nikolai Cherkasov (Ivan the Terrible) to play Fabrizio. Cherkasov, though, was on a bender in Siberia or something, Laurence Olivier was too busy, and Fox was willing to pony up three million dollars if Visconti would use one of its stars. Visconti despised this, only knowing Lancaster from Westerns, but after an on-set confrontation, the two made up and became lifelong friends; Lancaster truly is superb in the role.
The American box office for The Leopard, however, was dismal, and the movie vanished. Hell, I wouldn’t have even known it existed if it were not for the documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession and a reminder from Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film. Fox cut twenty minutes, used the cheaper DeLuxe color process for their prints, and, of course, dubbed it into English. This is the only way to hear Lancaster’s real voice in the role, and I have to admit that it was distracting for a while to hear another man’s voice, speaking Italian while Lancaster moved about. But the story is so Italian – so Sicilian, specifically – that hearing it in English robs it of so much identity, the heft of history. I admit that I am a snob about such things, and will always prefer the original language with subtitles, but this is, I think, an instance where is provably true. Most of Fabrizio’s commentary in the ball scene is silent, in any case; it is Lancaster’s attitude and body language that tells the tale of that evening.
The American poster is also the ugliest damn piece of advertising I have ever seen. =>
The week after I watched The Leopard held the first of the Republican Presidential Candidate Debates, and the exit of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show. There was a whole lot of political claptrap and noise being thrown around, and I was haunted by a speech Fabrizio makes to the Chavalier Chevally (Leslie French), an actual historical character:
“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.“
And that is the best way to describe The Leopard: haunting, beautiful, and unfortunately, terribly true.