Luchino Visconti’s 185-minute film The Leopard (Il Gattopardo, 1963) begins outside a quiet Italian villa. The camera gradually makes its way closer to the estate, gliding across the windows — open to the early summer breeze — until settling on a wafting lace curtain. The curtain invites the camera inside, and we come along with it. Inside the room, Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli) leads Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster), his wife Maria (Rina Morelli), and the rest of the Salinas through prayer. As Pirrone continues his mass, we hear a commotion outside. The aristocratic family tries to continue through the service in their ornate setting until Don Fabrizio, upset and distracted by the noise, asks one of his servants about the situation. The servant informs him that a dead soldier has been found in the Salina’s garden; it seems that il Risorgimento, the Italian Resurgence, is near their doorstep. Giuseppe Garibaldi and his Red Shirt revolutionaries have landed near Marsala.
The 45-year-old Don Fabrizio reacts to the news with concealed concern, as his family is gripped with fear, and packs his bags for a night out to Palermo to visit his mistress (while he loves his wife and has seven children with her, he angrily tells Pirrone that he has yet to see her navel). When the Prince returns the following morning, he is greeted by his nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), who tells his uncle of his intent to join Garibaldi’s faction. The young man tells his aged but stately uncle that “If we want things to stay as they are, everything will have to change.” Don Fabrizio realizes Tancredi is correct and that even if Garibaldi’s revolution fails, the days of an upper-class Italian aristocracy are numbered.
Despite Don Fabrizio’s realization that the inevitable will occur, he takes it upon himself to prolong the extinction for Tancredi. When Tancredi expresses his love for Don Fabrizio’s daughter, Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), her father discourages the union. His daughter is too reserved and submissive for the new ruling class and, despite the wealth of the Salina family, Concetta’s inheritance is not nearly enough to secure a foothold in the shifting terrain of a unified Italy. Instead, the Prince encourages his nephew to pursue Angelica Sedara (Claudia Cardinale), the beautiful and wealthy daughter of Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), a nouveau riche aristocrat whose obscene wealth and crass nature make him a necessary evil in the Salina estate. Their union is negotiated, Concetta’s heart is broken, and the stage is set for the film’s final hour: the wedding celebration of Tancredi and Angelica, the dawn of a new era, in which Don Fabrizio performs his last dance.
The Leopard is a dense film in nearly every application of the word. The plot introduces many characters and alludes to many political factions to the point of almost giving the viewer, especially those unfamiliar with 19th-century Italian history (as I had been, until I watched an informative documentary on the Criterion DVD that helped fill in some of the gaps), too much information to keep track of. Even after watching the film, the documentary, and spending an hour or so on various Wiki pages for an overall gloss of the unification, I still feel compelled to watch the film a second time. Now, this may come off as a criticism of the film. After all, isn’t it a sign of bad filmmaking if a viewer needs to research the historical material that went into a film in order to comprehend it?
I’d address that critique in two ways. First, even those unfamiliar with Italian history will still be able to latch onto the drama of Don Fabrizio’s conflict. Essentially, The Leopard is the story of a man who was born into a certain way of life and, now that it is significantly changing, he is fearful and mournful, yet willing to continue. That’s the source of culturally universal drama, especially given the economic crisis we find ourselves in now. Secondly, The Leopard is an Italian film, based on an Italian book that was focused on a specific moment in Italian history. If Visconti had spent a great deal of screen time establishing the historical context for the resurgence, he would have bored the film’s primary audience to tears. Consider, as a source of comparison, the American film Gone With the Wind (1939). Does Victor Fleming devote a significant amount of the film to detailing the causes and social context of the Civil War? Absolutely not, as the focus of the film, as with Visconti’s film, is not the historical events but their toll on the people caught within them.
As for the plot, I would only criticize Visconti on his odd use of flashbacks. In the film, we are given only two flashbacks: one that fills in the gap with regard to how the Prince and his family were able to secure passage across the countryside, and another featuring Sedara’s elusive wife. The second flashback was problematic and confusing, as when we see his wife, she looks strikingly like Angelica (and a quick IMDB search tells me that she was, in fact, played by Cardinale). Are we to assume that Angelica is also Sedara’s wife and that they have an ulterior motive for the wedding? No, because Visconti never returns to it, implying that Angelica and the wife are separate people, despite the odd casting choice. I’m not sure why this scene was added, or why the flashbacks were used at all, as they never really bring anything to the film. Thankfully, both are short.
Returning to the density of The Leopard, this time with a focus on Visconti’s style. The director, the descendant of Italian nobility, began his filmmaking career as one of the founding fathers of Italian Neorealism with Ossessione (1943). Ossessione is widely considered to be the first Neorealist film, which is rather odd considering it is an adaptation of American hardboiled writer James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. He would also direct the seminal Neorealist films La Terra Trema (1948) and, one of my favorites, Bellissima (1951), featuring Anna Magnani. The Leopard is, in some respects, a far cry from his work as a Neorealist filmmaker. Instead of featuring non-professional actors, the film features an international cast of stars from the Lancaster (American), Delon (French), and Cardinale (Italian). Moreover, the film, unlike most Neorealist films, does not deal with the poverty and desperation of post-World War II Italy.
Yet, Visconti’s preoccupations with verisimilitude still mark The Leopard. Shot, largely on location in villas spread across the Italian countryside, by Giuseppe Rotunno in Technirama (a widescreen process that held a 35mm negative horizontal opposed to diagonal, yielding a richer and crisper picture), the film ranks with Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) and the films of Josef von Sternberg with regard to sensuousness. The mise-en-scène is intoxicating, yet a sense of decay and loss lends the settings a feeling of petrification. The villas are lit with candles and decorated with oil paintings, but also carry with them a ghostly shroud of dust. At its very least, The Leopard is a docent for a gorgeous cinematic tour through historical Italy that just happens to feature the stunning beauty of Cardinale (who is given some of the best entrances I’ve ever seen in a film). [Note: The print I saw was the American premiere of a new restoration funded by the Film Foundation, Gucci, and other donors. The restoration, I believe, is not the source for the upcoming Criterion Blu-Ray that has, regardless, gotten stellar reviews with regard to picture quality.]
The two final qualities worthy of note are the performances and the film’s tone. Visconti, much to his credit, injects quite a bit of humor into The Leopard, despite its tragic subject matter. In particular, the interactions between the Prince and Pirrone and the Prince and Sedara provide quite a few laughs, a much-needed source of life considering the film’s epic running time (a quality that reminded me, again, of Barry Lyndon). Finally, Lancaster, regardless of his dialogue being overdubbed in Italian, does the impossible by eliciting our sympathy. While the Prince’s luxurious lifestyle could have alienated the viewer we, despite the abyss that stands between us and Salina both temporally and socially, recognize the profound loss that comes with change, and that is Visconti’s greatest achievement.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Senses of Cinema, and Mediascape. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.