THE LEOPARD (1963)

  • Director: Luchino Visconti
  • Writers: Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Luchino Visconti, and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
  • Starring: Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale, Romolo Valli, Paolo Stoppa, Rina Morelli, Terence Hill, and Serge Reggiani
  • Accolades: Sight & Sound 2012 Top 100 (#57), Cahiers du Cinema 2008 Top 100 (#25), 1 Oscar nomination (Best Costumes), 1963 Palme d’Or
  • Where to Watch: Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, and AppleTV

The best way to explain The Leopard (or Il Gattopardo, as it was called in its native language) to an American is probably to call it the Italian Gone With the Wind. Though I’m not actually sure that comparison does this movie justice, because its themes are much subtler and (to me) more interesting, the similarities are also easy to see. Both movies are set during Civil Wars in the 1860s, among the current aristocracy (literal in this case) that is on its way out. Both involve plenty of enormous dresses and discussion of marriages, and both are epic in scope and over three hours long. Among the key differences, however, is that while Scarlett O’Hara spends basically all of Gone With the Wind having trouble seeing past the end of her own nose, the Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) understands that the time of the Sicilian nobility has passed. He sees that a way of life that he deeply loves is about to end, and probably should. All he can do is set his family up as best he can to survive the changes that are coming. “Everything must change, so that everything stays the same,” he says at one point.

The movie takes place amid the Sicilian nobility at the time of the Risorgimento, the wars of Italian unification. I have a feeling an Italian audience that instinctively understands the history involved may have slightly better connection to this movie than an American one. Not to brag, but I’m probably in the 5% of Americans who know the most about this stuff, and I still had to repeatedly refer to Wikipedia. Basically what you need to know is that Sicily has been ruled for a couple of centuries by a scion of the French House of Bourbon, while the rest of Italy was a patchwork of various small independent states and cities. Around this time, an army of “redshirts” led by Giuseppe Garibaldi entered Sicily in an effort to overthrow the King, theoretically in the name of a Republic. While Garibaldi swept through Sicily, in the long run he was wounded in battle and didn’t get everything he wanted. In the end, Italy ended up united by 1880 under a constitutional monarchy led by Victor Emmanuel, a member of the “House of Savoy” and rival of the former Sicilian king. Got that?

The story of The Leopard follows the Prince of Salina, the patriarch of an old Sicilian nobel family, and the rest of his family, during this period. It was based on a novel that had recently become the best-selling in the history of Italy up to that time, written by an actual Sicilian prince, who had based the story loosely on his great-grandfather. The director, Luchino Visconti, was both a member of that aristocracy himself (he was technically a Count) and an avowed Marxist. This likely lends itself well to the film’s mix of feeling sympathy for the main character, while understanding on a basic level that not only are the days of the old aristocracy numbered, but that’s probably a good thing. 

This lavish period piece needed more money than Italian studios were normally equipped to provide, and so 20th Century Fox chipped in a couple million dollars on the condition that Visconti cast a bankable star in the lead. Though this was considered blasphemy at the height of Italian neorealism, Visconti agreed, and after several others (including Laurence Olivier, Spencer Tracy, and Gregory Peck) reportedly turned down the part, Burt Lancaster agreed. This made more sense in Italian cinema than it might have otherwise; tradition there was already for all dialogue and sounds to be dubbed during post-production. Those who were fortunate enough to be on the set of the films of Federico Fellini reported that the crew spoke loudly through every scene, as no sound was recorded on set. It was a world away from the Hollywood “quiet on the set!” So if Lancaster didn’t actually speak Italian, no matter, he could be dubbed by somebody who could. In the end, the voices of all three of the most prominent actors in the movie (Lancaster, French superstar Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale, who was of Italian extraction but was actually born in Tunisia and raised speaking French) were dubbed over by other, native actors.

The story opens with the Prince and his family at Mass, when they are interrupted by a dead soldier found in the garden, alerting them that Garibaldi’s war has now come to Sicily. The Prince has had three daughters and one, somewhat ineffectual, son, and views his dashing nephew Tancredi (Delon) as the best hope for carrying on the family line. The Prince understands things better than most, but he is a square-jawed product of the old aristocracy at its stuffiest. Early in the movie he confesses to a priest that he’s had four children with his wife (Rina Morelli) “without ever seeing her navel.” Tancredi is a hot-headed opportunist, and runs off to volunteer for Garibaldi’s army. Though Palermo is thoroughly destroyed by the fighting, the Prince insists on taking the entire family to his “summer home” of Donnafugata, just as he has every year. 

There he is greeted by the Mayor (Paolo Stoppa), a member of the nouveau riche, who the Prince tolerates but clearly cannot stand (the movie tells us this through the look on Lancaster’s face, not dialogue). Invited for dinner with his wife, the Mayor brings his daughter Angelica (Cardinale) instead, and both the Prince and Tancredi immediately fall for her. The Prince agrees to match Tancredi with Angelica, knowing that his social climber of a nephew will need her father’s money to make the life he wants for himself, and also that they are clearly in love. A few years earlier, he would never have considered this, and his wife flips out when he tells her, but he shouts back, “I had already decided before you even knew about it!” The movie then climaxes in a 45-minute sequence set at a ball at a lavish villa. The camera follows the Prince from room to room as the young people dance all through the night and the older people watch from the sidelines calculating. He becomes despondent and contemplative of his own mortality, but cheers up when Angelica dances with him. Then he tells the host to order a carriage for his wife, he’s going to walk home, and, in the final shot, disappears into a dark alley symbolic of the dark Italian past from which he cannot emerge. Or something.

I found this movie about the best version of this kind of movie that could be made. Lancaster’s voice may not be heard (in the Italian version you’re most likely to find these days), but he brings a lot with just his face and demeanor. Many of the things you’re supposed to get in this movie are not actually said out loud. 1960s Alain Delon, meanwhile, may literally be the handsomest man I’ve seen in my life, and Claudia Cardinale is just something else. We immediately understand why both of the male leads immediately fall in love with her. Yes, she’s beautiful, but so is basically every other actress. While every other female character in their movie feels like their corsets are on too tight (because they probably are), Cardinale’s Angelica laughs at men’s jokes and does a lot of sexy lip biting. For all the talk of romance in this movie, she’s the only girl who looks like she’s actually thought about having sex before.

That final sequence is maybe the most opulent I’ve seen in a movie, and I’ve seen movies that were literally shot at Versailles. As one less couth character notes to the Prince, the villa where the ball is held could never be built today, not with “the price of gold leaf as it is.” We watch the Prince stare at a painting showing mourners surrounding a man on his death bed, slowly lighting a cigar from a candle. He hopes his own death will be similar, though he notes that he hopes that at his own passing the women will be “more appropriately dressed.” The long dance sequence is justly famous, especially in Europe, and has been called “one of the most emotionally moving set pieces in movies.” 

The thing is, as you can get from some of the quotes I’ve used, this is also a very funny movie. The scene where the Mayor announces the result of a “plebiscite,” held in the town to determine whether it should join with Garibaldi’s revolution, but gets increasingly frustrated by untimely interruptions from the town marching band, is hilarious. But then he announces that the results of the referendum were 512-0. When one character tells the Prince later that he actually voted no, neither he nor the audience are surprised. What both the Prince and this movie understand is that the new order is not a cure-all, any more than the aristocracy should be preserved. Of course the ambitious Mayor fudged the results of the vote, in an attempt to get in good with his new bosses. This is social commentary delivered with a bit of a sardonic edge.

Despite the inclusion of Lancaster, 20th Century Fox still wouldn’t release Visconti’s three-hour cut in American cinemas. They cut 40 minutes out (I’m not sure how, I barely understood the plot as it was), and dubbed everything back into English without any involvement from Visconti. He complained that Fox treated the American public “like an audience of children” and disowned their version. The movie ended up flopping at the American box office, though it was a smash in Europe and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. In the 1980s, however, it came back into the American consciousness after a restored re-release spearheaded by Martin Scorsese, who says it’s one of his favorite movies. This is the version you’ll find now, 180 minutes long and with the Italian dubbing. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I think The Leopard is definitely worth checking out for basically anyone.

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