Tag: Claudia Cardinale

The Leopard (1963)

The Leopard (1963)

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.

8½ (1963)

Marcello Mastroianni plays a version of the director in Fellini’s inspiring

Director: Federico Fellini

Cast: Marcello Mastroianni (Guido Anselmi), Anouk Aimée (Luisa Anselmi), Rossella Falk (Rossella), Sandro Milo (Carla), Claudia Cardinale (Herself), Guido Alberti (Pace – Producer), Jean Rougeul (Carini Daumier), Mario Pisu (Mario Messabotta), Barbara Steele (Gloria Morin), Madeline Lebeau (Herself), Eddra Gale (La Saraghina), Ian Dallas (Maurice, clairvoyant’s assistant)

If there is a single director associated with self-reflecting films its Federico Fellini. Frequently recognised as one of the greatest and most influential directors of all time, many of his films use baroque imagery and a masterful interplay of reality and fantasy to delve deep into both its director’s own subconscious and the swirling pressures and internal conflicts that make us the people we are. is, perhaps, the greatest expression of this style of film-making, a giddy sensory delight that demands investment and wisdom to unpeel its layers and give you a chance of finding its meaning.

Frequent Fellini collaborator Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido, a thinly veiled portrait of Fellini himself. Like Fellini, Guido is a successful and visionary director, facing pressure to come up with his ‘next masterpiece’ after the glorious success of his previous film (in Fellini’s case La Dolce Vita). Like Fellini, Guido is struggling to work out exactly what statement he wants to make next, instead allowing himself to become distracted by personal issues and day-dreaming flights of fancy (literally so in the film’s opening, where Guido imagines himself flying through the sky before being tethered and pulled to earth by his producer). Most of all these distractions revolve around women, from his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée), his mistress Carla (Sandro Milo) and recurring daydreams of Claudia Cardinale (playing herself) who could just be the muse he is looking for. 

To me one of the things that can make a film great, is when the ideas in it are not obvious and tired, but when they defy obvious characterisation but throw themselves open to further thought and different interpretation depending on your mood. definitely meets this criteria, combined with the fact that it’s beautifully made and very entertaining.

Fellini’s deep dive into his own subconscious is deeply involving and intriguing. The film dances from beat to beat between reality, memory and fantasy – often leaving the lines blurred about which of these we are watching at any one time. That’s part of Fellini’s idea, that our minds are complex enough to exist on all three plains at the same time, to juggle within ourselves what’s real, what we remember, what we imagined or wished could happen and how we create our own versions of all these. 

In the build-up to the film, Fellini famously struggled to identify what he wished to make and what it should be about. But while you could say that Fellini turned this creative block into a film – that, when unsure about what to make a film about, he made a film about a director who didn’t know what to make a film about – that’s to suggest a vagueness in its execution that isn’t the case. Fellini knows exactly what he’s doing here: every scene serves its purpose to explore the ennui and feelings of entrapment that an artist feels, both in his life and his craft. Far from being ambling, the film is carefully constructed and brilliantly focused.

Guido is hounded at every corner by people wanting something from him. Be it producers demanding progress, extras looking for roles in his film, actors demanding insight for their characters to his mistress looking for his attention or his wife demanding more focus from him on their marriage. The film is Guido attempting to identity among all these demands what he needs and wants from his own life – and how to build on that. It’s telling that most of Guido’s fantasies that litter the film revolve around his demands for other people to service him – be that romantically, literally or spiritually. Is part of the point of the film that we are all selfish to some extent? 

It’s the film’s exploration of day-dreaming fantasy that gives it some of its most extraordinary work, coupled with Fellini’s superb and striking visuals. The opening sequences of Guido imaging literally flying out of a traffic jam (and away from the stares of the other drivers) into the freedom of the sky – before being literally pulled back down to Earth – shows how these flights of fancy give us windows into our own desires. Guido’s a confused man looking for focus and something to believe in – his constant fantasies of Claudia Cardinale seem in part longing for her to solve his creative problems, part sexual, part almost motherly, as if she can take some decisions away from him.

Other fantasies – such as an imagined conversation with a priest for spiritual guidance – lean on finding the sort of structure his life seems to be missing. (And also, in a fantasy confession of his ennui to the same priest, perhaps a need again to be told what to do.) Most of his fantasies though revolve around romance. He imagines his wife and mistress sharing anecdotes before dancing away arm-in-arm. Most famously, an extended sequence shows Guido imagining a harem containing all the woman in his life, where he is the centre of attention – and women who age beyond his interest are politely banished upstairs “to be well looked after”. The women range from long-standing crushes and mistresses, to half-glimpsed dancers and an air hostess with a sexy voice. 

There is a striking honesty about Fellini putting something like this on film – and then use the fantasy he is displaying to both comment on and criticise his own internal fantasies. In the fantasy, unlike real life, his wife is an almost maternal figure (Guido has already jumped at one point in his reverie earlier in his film, to remember his mother only for her to turn into his wife), the women address Guido with harsh truths about everything from his character to his sexual performance, a revolt breaks out in the fantasy harem at Guido’s banishing of early crushes as they age (one which Guido stamps out). The harem is further set within his childhood home, adding a whole other layer of odd sexuality to it, as part of the women’s duties are to bath and wash him exactly as his grandmother did as a boy. It’s a sequence that lays itself open to multiple interpretations, but never feels exploitative or sleazy.

Large chunks of the rest of the film take place in a hard-to-define space between dream, memory and reality. Frequently scenes shift in nature half way through – Guido is followed throughout the film by a critic-turned-screenwriter, full of criticism of the intellectual shallowness of his work who, mid-rant, he imagines taken away for execution by some toughs. Gentle tracking shots around the retreat Guido is staying at – scored with a mixture of classical music and Nina Rota’s wonderful score – trip a line between real and imaginary in the sights we see. Conversations are intercut with imagined moments or might simply be happening in a pretence rather than a reality.

If it sounds like a difficult view, it’s not. Because for all the intelligent analysis of the ennui that can come from a creative block and the internalised struggle to find a balance between all the impulses that pull on us, it’s also a hugely entertaining film. Funny, wise and superbly acted. Mastroianni is brilliant as Guido, in turns giddy and world-weary, confused and resigned then ambitious and dreamlike. The rest of the cast are also excellent, with Anouk Aimée delightful as his long-suffering wife and Sandro Milo hugely entertaining as a needy but largely ignored mistress.

Fellini’s dives into memory also add both a richness and an emotional heft to the film. There are some beautifully nostalgic sequences that head back into the past. Guido’s childhood is explored with a series of wonderful vignettes. From his childhood in a wine distillery with his grandmother and aunts, full of playful energy, to the first stirring of a sexual awakening watching a prostitute dance on the beach (a quite extraordinary scene of playful flirtation, but still rather oddly innocent in its way). These scenes have captured the imagination of directors across the globe, with their power and ability to capture both the nostalgia of recollection, but also a distant magic of memory and the impact these still have on us in the present. But no body does this better than Fellini.

The best thing that can be said about is that I can imagine watching it hundreds of times, and each time seeing something fresh and new about it. And it works because its ideas are profound without being pretentious and easy enough to engage with, while never shallow. It brings depth and richness to complex internal struggles and repackages these into a rich experience that enlightens both memory and creativity. A great movie.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Fonda and Bronson prepare to face off in Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in the West

Director: Sergio Leone

Cast: Henry Fonda (Frank), Claudia Cardinale (Jill McBain), Charles Bronson (“Harmonica”), Jason Robards (“Cheyenne”), Gabrielle Ferzetti (Morton), Paolo Stoppa (Sam), Marco Zuanelli (Wobbles), Keenan Wynn (Sheriff), Frank Wolff (Brett McBain), Lionel Stander (Barman), Woody Strode (First Gunman), Jack Elam (Second Gunman), Al Mulock (Third Gunman

Sergio Leone’s Westerns were always based, first and foremost, on his own love for the genre – and the great filmmakers, from John Ford onwards, who made them. Returning to the genre for the final time – putting on hold (for what turned out to be nearly fifteen years) his plans for a New York gangster film – Leone wanted to make his final, and ultimate, tribute to the Hollywood western. Collaborating with Bernardo Bertoloucci and Dario Argento (now there is an odd trio!) on the scripting, Leone’s final Western is a sweeping, grandiose, operatic Western littered with visual quotations from films he loved.

The story rather takes second fiddle to the general ambiance and visuals, but it never bothered Leone to have only the sketchiest of plots stretched across the many hours of his movies. The railroad is being built across America – changing the face of the West as it goes. Frank (Henry Fonda), hired gun of crippled railway tycoon Morton (Gabrielle Ferzetti), guns down farmer Brett McBain and his children. He had been sent to threaten them to clear off the land of Sweetwater. But why? And how will the return of McBain’s new wife Jill (Claudia Cardinale) – now heir to all of Frank’s holdings – affect their plans? And why does the mysterious “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson) – a shadowy gunman with no name have such an interest in events, and in Frank in particular? And will criminal gunman Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and his gang – blamed for the McCain killings – be able to establish their innocence?

The answers to all these questions come slowly – and often confusingly – in this long, slow but – as with many Leone films – engrossing Western, which features 3-5 minutes of Morricone build-up and extreme close-up before even the slightest action. This makes it very easy to mock, and perhaps by this point Leone had started to believe too heavily that he was an artist daubing in genre, rather than a purveyor of entertainments. Certainly, Once Upon a Time in the West is consciously weighted down with its own importance, it’s ominous sense of events heading to a pre-ordained conclusion and its half-hearted attempt to depict itself as sitting at a crossroads in American history, as technology squeezed out the old West.

But somehow you give Leone’s film a pass for all its many faults because it’s assembled with such unrivalled skill and breathtaking pizzazz. Sure the film is only half as smart as it thinks it is, but when at its strongest it offers unrivalled entertainment. Leone also mastered here his balance between the slow, tense, agonising build-up to violence – followed by its sudden and brutal enactment. 

Never is that more clear than in the film’s opening ten minutes which features three gunmen (among them Ford favourite Woody Strode and reliable minor bad-guy Jack Elam) waiting at a train station for what turns-out to be the arrival of Charles Bronson’s “Harmonica”. The three gunmen sit, waiting, in silence. Around them the everyday sounds of windmills, buzzing flies and dripping water builds and relapses with all the dread of distant thunder. Leone’s camera crashes in for long, intense close-ups, as if drilling down into the souls of these bored men, the camera studying every detail of their faces. After almost ten minutes – during which the credits roll – “Harmonica” arrives. And promptly shoots all three men dead in seconds. You know it’s coming, but the tension and expectation of this confrontation makes the entire sequence compelling. 

It’s a trick that Leone repeats time and time again. Effectively the whole film is only prolonged extension of this sequence – the inconsequential back-and-forth of the lacklustre plot all really about giving us a chance to drill down into the character of Henry Fonda’s bad-to-the-bone Frank, while we wait for the inevitable gunfight between him and “Harmonica”. Leone’s film is a triumph of mood, filled with sweeping beautiful camera shot and luxiously paced editing, all mixed down with some stunning scoring from Ennio Morricone.

Once Upon a Time echoes a fairy tale in its title, and that’s what it is. For all that Leone attempts to throw in plotlines around progress, the influence of big money and the new order leaving gunmen behind, really everything it knows about America is taken from movies. Leone litters the film with visual quotes from High Noon, Shane and dozens of others, most especially Ford (he even insisted in transplanting some of the scenes to be shot at Monument Valley, which led to merry hell trying to get the other Spanish-shot locations to visually match). The entire film unfolds like a dream. At about the half way mark in particular – this might be due to cuts to be fair – the narrative suddenly becomes almost deliberately unconnected, key events seemingly skipped over and sudden character reversals taking place. There is a rumbling sense of everything in the film being artificial and the characters themselves being manipulated by something larger than them (like a film director!).

This is further heightened by “Harmonica” himself. Played with an empty blankness by Charles Bronson – the camera zooms into his expressionlessly craggy face endlessly as if searching for meaning – “Harmonica” is an almost mystical presence. He’s always in the right place at the right time, seems to be the only person in the film who knows what’s going on and Leone even shoots him regularly sliding into frame, as if the camera has stumbled upon him at the least expected times. Perhaps Bronson’s lack of real character helped make him perfect for this near-mystical presence. It also fits in with the shamanic feeling of a film where frequently not much happens at great length, but the inconsequential moments of events are filmed with a pregnant importance.

Compared to him the other principles are painted in earthy tones. Robards makes his bandit – who switches allegiances and escapes from undefined imprisonment several times in the movie – a jovial, grimy figure with a rogueish temperament. Claudia Cardinale – in what passes for a strong female character at the time – is a whore with a heart of gold who may, or may not be willing to do anything to ensure her own survival (the film is unclear). Is she a ruthless woman using sex as a weapon? Or is she the sort of radiant Earth-mother that the new West needs? Or is she a bit of both? The film isn’t really sure.

What it is sure about is that Fonda’s Frank is the meanest of the mean. Looking lean and tough, Fonda revels in the chance to play a villain – and not just any villain, this grinning sadist is so mean the first thing he does is gun down a child on screen. Leone loved Fonda – and above all he wanted those “baby blue” eyes to be the thing the viewers see as unspeakable deeds take place, expecting the cry of “Jesus Christ, that’s Henry Fonda!” Frank is a bully and tirelessly ambitious, and if we never get a real sense of what motivates him, it’s balanced by Fonda’s charismatic viciousness in the role.

It’s a pointer though to the fact that this is not a film about the West – as always the strange mixture of accents, faces and locations never makes the film feel for one moment like a real slice of America – but rather a film that is aiming to reflect the romance of movies. It’s a piece of Americana, that is really a love letter to other films. Perhaps it’s one of the first post-modern films ever made? But really your appreciation of the film can only really be complete if you have seen a lot of Westerns. Then it’s fairy tale like logic, and Leone’s operatic style and languid pace suddenly make sense. It’s not a film deep in meaning, other than perhaps our own love for cinema and the story it tells.