Criterion // 1963 // 185 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // June 29th, 2010
"Things will have to change in order that they remain the same."
Nineteenth century Italy was marked by violence and strife as revolutionaries slowly transformed the country from a conglomeration of feudal states governed by foreign powers into a unified national state. The period is known as the Risorgimento. Its great hero is Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose landing in Marsala in May of 1860 is as seminal a moment to the Risorgimento as Washington's crossing the Delaware is to the American Revolution.
The Risorgimento became the backdrop for Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's 1958 novel Il Gattopardo. Lampedusa was one of the last vestiges of the old Sicilian aristocracy. His book is based on the effects of unification on his own family (especially his great-grandfather). Its rich detail and emotional potency made Il Gattopardo one of the most successful and highly regarded Italian novels of the 20th century, despite the fact that it takes an antagonistic view of Garibaldi, one of the great national heroes of Italy.
The book inspired Luchino Visconti (The Damned) to direct a 1963 film adaptation that is regarded as one of the most important Italian movies of the last century. Criterion previously delivered a lush three-disc DVD treatment of Visconti's masterpiece that included two versions of the movie as well as a boat-load of extras. That wonderful set has now been graced with an upgrade to high definition.
The Leopard opens in 1860 with the news that Garibaldi has landed in Marsala, a development that displeases Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry), a member of the Sicilian aristocracy. The prince and his hangers-on ponder how to deal with the three warring factions -- the republicans, the monarchists, and Garibaldi's revolutionaries -- in order to best maintain the family's wealth and prestige as change rapidly overtakes Italy. Meanwhile, Don Fabrizio's family life is complicated when his upstart nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon, Le Samourai) rejects his daughter in favor of the beautiful Angelica Sedara (Claudia Cardinale, Once Upon a Time in the West), the daughter of a nouveau riche merchant the prince and his family consider beneath them.
By most accounts, Luchino Visconti's film version of The Leopard is even better than Lampedusa's fine novel. That's because, while the novel is undoubtedly more historically detailed, it's not as emotionally and thematically rich. Lampedusa identified so strongly with his protagonist (named Don Cobrero in the book) that his political loyalties are obvious: He unapologetically laments the collapse of the old aristocracy. Visconti's take on the material is far more politically ambivalent. He treats Don Fabrizio with a mix of admiration and disgust that is a central component of the complex and ambiguous socio-political tapestry at the center of the movie. Visconti himself was born into the Italian aristocracy and came by his far-left political sensibilities as an adult (he joined the Communist Party during World War II). The result of this dissonance in Visconti's experience is a man who is deeply critical of what the Italian moneyed class represents, but is also too intimately familiar with the world of the aristocracy to reduce its members to inhuman political exploiters. The Leopard is Visconti's wistful elegy to a class system that he despises on principle but remembers with no small amount of nostalgia.
Watching The Leopard, it's no surprise that Visconti was as accomplished a director of opera as he was of film. On the surface, the movie may appear to have much in common with Hollywood epics like Gone with the Wind or Doctor Zhivago, but it packs far less plot and drama into its three-hour-and-five-minute running time than either of those films. The Leopard is mostly a series labyrinthine conversations, rarely offering histrionics beyond the deep furrows of concern in Don Fabrizio's brow. The movie doesn't drag, though, because Visconti establishes an almost musical rhythm to his cutting, enhancing the picture's melancholy, elegiac tone. The performances, too, are magnetic. Lancaster is transcendent as the fading prince, his star power endowing him with a masculine presence that makes him the center of gravity in every scene he occupies. We believe that the other characters would be in awe of Fabrizio in large part because the other actors seem to be in awe of Lancaster (Visconti originally wanted Marlon Brando in the role, but was forced by the studio to accept Lancaster; it's difficult to imagine that the Brando of the early '60s could have matched the unsettling mix of enormous self-confidence and sublimated sadness that Lancaster delivers with so much skill that his work appears effortless). Alain Delon plays Tancredi's pragmatism and innate grasp of realpolitik with such rakish charm that we can't hold it against him. Those who are only familiar with Claudia Cardinale from Once Upon a Time in the West or8 1/2 would do well to check her out here just to get a better sense of the range of her talent. Neither a woman in charge or a seductress, in The Leopard she plays a beautiful young woman who is at once at least partially aware of her own sexual power yet also oblivious to how ill equipped she is to maneuver the complex rules of propriety that govern Italy's ruling class. Her performance is subtle and amazing.
Even if the performances weren't mesmerizing, the movie's gorgeous visuals -- a collaboration between Visconti and director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno (Popeye) -- would be more than enough to draw us in. To use a well-worn cliché, Sicily is a character in the film. From the aged but opulent beauty of Fabrizio's estates to the rolling fields of olive trees, every frame of the movie is beautiful enough to make one's eyeballs melt. That Visconti allows languid takes and moves his camera with slow precision allows us to gaze with awed wonder at the fantastic visuals. The Leopard's relatively slow pace isn't a problem; it's one of the best things about the movie. Criterion's DVD release of The Leopard was a stunning visual achievement that arguably topped the heap of the collection's many stunning visual achievements. This Blu-ray release blows that DVD out of the water. It is, quite possibly, the most gorgeous thing the Criterion Collection has ever produced. According to their typically detailed liner notes, the 1080p transfer comes courtesy of the movie's original 35mm negative. The mastering process was supervised by Giuseppe Rotunno. The presentation is in the film's original Super Technirama aspect ratio of 2.21:1. Let me be blunt here: The image on this Blu-ray is reference quality in every way, shape, and form. Detail and color reproduction are exceptional. Digital artifacts are non-existent. Visconti and Rotunno shot The Leopard with the same level of photographic clarity one sees in Stanley Kubrick's work. This Blu-ray shows off every pore on the actors' skin, every rich color, every subtlety of lighting to maximum effect.
Audio is a single-channel, uncompressed Linear PCM presentation of the movie's original analog monaural Italian track. For obvious reasons, the track is pinched and offers a flat dynamic range, but it's still less shrill than the Dolby mono track on the old DVD. It is a top-notch presentation of a very limited source.
The set's two Blu-ray discs house the same hefty load of extras that were included in Criterion's original three-disc DVD release. The only supplement on the first disc is an excellent feature-length audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie, who has written books about everything from the films of Ingmar Bergman to The Godfather, and proves quite knowledgeable about Visconti.
Disc Two kicks off with the 161-minute American version of The Leopard, which is mostly interesting because it includes Lancaster's voice instead of the actor's who dubbed him for the Italian version. Make no mistake, the American version is treated as a supplement here, not a full-fledged second helping of the movie. While the 1080i transfer is decent, neither its color reproduction nor its fine detail holds a candle to the presentation on Disc One. The source displays plenty of minor print damage like flecks and small scratches. The dated Criterion logo that precedes the picture as well as the Dolby mono audio track are sure indications that the presentation is merely an up-conversion of the transfer that appeared on the second disc of the previously released three-disc DVD.
Disc Two also contains a collection of documentaries, interviews, and other goodies:
A Dying Breed: The Making of The Leopard (61:37) is a fine making-of documentary, produced by Criterion in 2003. It features interviews with Claudia Cardinale, screenwriter Enrico Medioli, director Sydney Pollack (who knew his Visconti), and others. The documentary delves into Lampedusa's novel as well as the production of the movie.
"Geoffredo Lombardo Interview" (19:34) is a sit-down with the producer whose Titanus studio was bankrupted by Visconti's movie. Far from bitter, Lombardo is deeply proud of The Leopard, considering it the greatest film he ever produced.
"The History of the Risorgimento" (13:40) is a video interview with Italian culture scholar Millicent Marcus, who provides helpful historical context for viewing The Leopard. Nineteenth-century Italian history is complex, and Marcus's notes are a boon for those wanting to sort out the various loyalties of the characters in the film.
In addition to the documentaries and interviews, there is a poster gallery, Italian promotional newsreels for the movie, an Italian trailer, and two American trailers. There's also a stills gallery with a ton of photographs divided into four different sections.
What more do I need to say? The Leopard is a great movie, and this Blu-ray presentation is so spectacular it hurts. If you claim to be a fan of cinema, for the love of all that is holy, run out and buy this immediately.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.20:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Italian)
Running Time: 185 Minutes
Release Year: 1963
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* American Version