Possibly the most luscious film ever-made, Visconti’s epic is a beautiful film of rage against the dying of the light
Director: Luchino Visconti
Cast: Burt Lancaster (Don Fabrizio Corbera), Alain Delon (Prince Tancredi Falconeri), Claudia Cardinale (Angelica Sedara), Paolo Stoppa (Don Calogero Sedara), Rina Morelli (Princess Maria Stella of Salina), Romolo Valli (Father Pirrone), Terence Hill (Count Cavriaghi), Serge Reggiani (Don “Ciccio” Tumeo), Leslie French (Cavalier Chevalley), Pierre Clémenti (Francesco Paolo Corbera), Lucilla Morlacchi (Concetta Corbera), Ida Galli (Carolina Corbera), Ottavia Piccolo Caterina Corbera)
There might not be a more visually ravishing film than Visconti’s The Leopard. Every detail of costume and set design is perfect in this gloriously stately, carefully crafted adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s only novel. It’s a perfect match for the autumnal melancholy of Visconti’s elaborate work, as an ageing prince in the Risorgimento rages quietly against the dying of the light. The Leopard is a delicate and carefully-paced film that carries a sweeping romanticism.
It’s 1860 and if the Sicilian aristocracy “want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. Italy is forming itself into a nation and Sicily is in a state of civil war. On one side, the forces of the revolutionary republican Garibaldi – on the other, the old-guard of Francis II of the Two Sicilies, clinging to keep Sicily part of the Bourbon empire. Watching all this, Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster), scion of a noble family, watching the inevitability of change but clinging to tradition. His nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) embraces first the fervour of Garibaldi, then Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) the radiant daughter of nouveau riche Don Sedara (Paolo Stoppa). But is there a place for the prince in this new world of democracy and the power of the middle classes?
The Leopard hails from the same wistful remembrance of things past that powers Brideshead Revisited in the English language. In Visconti, son of Milanese nobility, it found its perfect director. Visconti didn’t just know the world behind the declining place for the nobility: he’d lived it. He brings every inch of that to the luscious beauty of The Leopard, a mournful final hurrah of a generation and way of living that has no place in the present and is only an echo of the past.
The Leopard is crammed with simply stunning period detail. Visconti shoots this with a calm, controlled, observant camera, that moves and pans slowly through sets, carefully following its players. It’s set in a world of elaborate drawing rooms and stunning vistas. Costumes are intricate in their period detail. Dinners are grand celebrations of the opulence of this bygone era. Every detail in the set is perfect to the minutest detail – you feel a drawer could be pulled open and only period-appropriate props would be contained inside.
Visconti though never makes the film a slave to its period trappings. The careful details of the prince’s life serve to stress how bygone and dying these days are. It’s a film full of moments of small but telling undercutting that stress how this world is crumbling. In church, wind blows dust across the gathered Corbera family, coating them in dirt. They mock the newly empowered Don Sedara – and the pompous chap’s ineffectiveness is hammered home when a band keeps interrupting his attempt to declare the results of a rigged unification plebiscite – but Fabrizio is desperate to secure a marriage alliance with him and it’s clear Sedara is very much in the political ascendancy.
Could Fabrizio have done more to preserve his way of life if he wasn’t so clearly entering the twilight of his years? He’s virile enough, dashing from the family home (priest in tow) to spend a night in town with his mistress. He can climb the hills and hunt with the best of them. He half considers that it’s not outside the realm of possibility for him to have a crack at Angelica himself. But this is truly the Lion in Winter. He’s powerless to defend the traditional position that guarantees his influence and lacks the drive and youth Tancredi has to fashion himself a new one. For all his wry wit and handsome features, he becomes a sweaty, mournful figure at a celebration ball watching the young people dance all night and musing on where his own vitality went.
That long ballroom sequence – a near 45-minute extended scene that ends the film – is one of the triumphant tour-de-forces of cinema. A gorgeous culmination of the beauty of the entire piece, Visconti also manages to present it as a final hurrah of a whole way of life. This celebration is crammed with military figures who call the shots and filled as much with older people struggling to keep the pace as it is young ones with an eye on something far more modern than the pleasures that thrilled their parents. At the heart of this, Visconti’s camera carefully follows the prince as he moves from room to room, a quiet, lonely observer, tears in his eyes at moments, reflecting on his mortality and rousing his youthful fire only for a single dance with Angelica.
As this rusting monument to the old ways, Visconti was gifted with a Hollywood star. To be honest, at first he was far from happy when he received Burt Lancaster. But – once you get over the oddness of Lancaster being dubbed by a plummy Italian accent – it’s a near perfect marriage of actor and role. Always a graceful and elegant actor, Lancaster becomes Italian – there is more than a foreshadow of the Godfather to him – and his genteel, noble face is perfect for this bastion, just as his expressive eyes are perfect for the part’s delicacy and sadness. It should be a bizarre miscasting, but it lands perfectly and much of the success of the final ball sequence is his ability to communicate so much from such small moments.
Visconti places him at the heart of this languid, precise film and contrasts the prince’s gentle moving out-of-step with the future with the dynamism and openness to compromise of his nephew. Tancredi – a youthful and passionate Alain Delon – is energetic and with a casual ease switches passions personal and political. Starting the film as a red-shirted revolutionary, he ends it as a uniform-clad member of the elite. Professing his love for the prince’s daughter, he ditches her on a sixpence for Angelica. Not that anyone can blame him: Claudia Cardinale is gorgeous but also shows the elemental charisma that Leone was to use to such great effect in Once Upon a Time in the West. Cardinale also feels like someone between two eras: attracted to the casual and flexible Tancredi but perhaps more drawn to the elegant grandeur of the prince.
The Leopard works as extraordinarily well as it does because it is so well paced. This is a film that requires an inordinate length, lingering shots and scenes, and for action to be happening elsewhere. Our single burst of action is to see Garibaldi’s forces fight in the streets of Palermo: other than this, momentous events happen elsewhere off-screen. The camera moves instead to study the scenery or the passing of normal people on the streets. We are always given the sense of this family and its world being cut off and left behind by real events. Tancredi starts the film explaining his conversion to Garibaldi in detail: later he will barely mention why he’s changed uniforms or feel the need to say why he is accepting positions the revolutionaries reject.
It’s not a surprise that a cut-down version of The Leopard was a major bomb when released in America. The three-hour run time is needed to truly understand the drift and ennui Visconti’s film is exploring. It does it in a film dripping with gorgeous period detail and full of scenes awash with interest, but the point is this is a film of slow, deceptive but finally overwhelming impact. The quiet, controlled, predictable life that generations of the prince’s family has known, dies with the same polite, grand silence as it largely lived. The Leopard is a stunning tribute to the passing of an era.