The leopard may be a symbol of sin, but Judge Bill Gibron sees this movie as a rich, dense, and detailed film well worth the multiple viewings it'll take to absorb it.
Our review of The Leopard: Criterion Collection (Blu-Ray), published June 29th, 2010, is also available.
Things will have to change in order for them to stay the same.
It sat on the corner of Maple and Kenwood for decades, a mansion so mighty it dwarfed the other opulent houses that surrounded it. It was owned by the Vails, a family that, along with the Barkers, possessed most of the property in Michigan City, Indiana. The six-story monstrosity was a bleak box, a Gothic throwback to a time when ornate iron gates, Victorian arches, and stone-accented window frames signified regality and respect. No one remembered when the house was last occupied. Rumors and reasons buzzed and flew. It was suggested that Mr. Vail was lost after his wife died, far too young, from cancer. Others explained that greedy children could not figure out a way to divide up the estate after the old man had passed on. Some argued the upkeep was too steep and the now-destitute owners were holding out until the last moment, hoping that their cold castle would be saved by some miraculous turn of financial events. And naturally, hauntings and wailing women were often heard or seen emanating from the darkened rooms across the top floor.
Of course, none of those things were true. Vail Manor sat uninhabited, lawn overgrown, iron gates rusting, because the Vails could afford to let it sit. They could do with it as they pleased. It was a sign of their wealth and their position. Where once the imposing façade announced importance and power, the broken windows and missing roof tiles declared it a monument to an era in extravagance that the family or the town would never see again. It stood as a reminder that, even in the middle of small-town mid-America, a certain sense of aristocracy dwelled. So when the house was finally demolished, brought down after a huge estate sale, the death knell was finally sounded. This statue to success—a citadel to capitalism—was torn down inch by inch, until all that remained was a sign on a half-standing broken pillar of what used to be the gazebo. "No Trespassing, Private Property" was all it said. That is how life changes. Not with a melodramatic showdown or a grand announcement, but with the gradual decomposition of edifices and monoliths and a simple, static sign.
Like the Vail home, Prince Salina is also a tired, hollowed-out relic, waiting for the inevitable day when he'll be taken down and destroyed. Where once his farms and orchards drew out the boundaries of his kingdom, now rebellion rewrites the rules of order, and nobility no longer has a place. He is a fixture in a dying dwelling that one no longer wants. In Luchino Visconti's operatic masterpiece, The Leopard, Prince Salina is the title titan, once a beast of a man now about to be reduced by fate to a half-standing, broken pillar of the disappearing ruling class.
Facts of the Case
Prince Salina (Burt Lancaster) is a nobleman and titled landowner in the feudal system of 19th century Sicily. He and his family have lived on a palatial estate outside Palermo for generations. As 1861 approaches, word comes that revolution is in the air. The ruling royal regime, the Bourbons, is being challenged on two sides. On one, there is the political call for a republic; on the other, the "take up arms" and "fight for rights" demands of the Garibaldinis, a people's peasant army. In his own household, young hothead Tancredi (Alain Delon) joins the resistance and is injured in a major battle. Seeking solace and escape, the Prince takes his family to Donnafugata, the location of their summer estate. There he will wait, strategize, and prepare for the next phase of the unrest.
In the meantime, Tancredi meets Angelica Sedara (Claudia Cardinale), daughter of Don Calogero Sedara, the town's mayor and major landowner. Tancredi falls madly in love and he and Angelica are engaged. Envoys from the Republican forces contact Prince Salina, hoping he will accept an appointment to the Senate. He refuses, but suggests Don Calogero for the position. After an election reaffirming Sicily's separatist position, Donnafugata throws a massive formal ball to celebrate. While attending this gathering, Prince Salina realizes that the aristocracy is being phased out, removed of their power and prominence. His kind is dying out. He also learns that Tancredi is now supporting the movement for unity, the very forces abandoning his family. But with his new fiancé and her powerful family, it no longer matters. He will be happy, just as Prince Salina will retire to one of his villas, to live out his days as a shadow of the man he once was.
Symbolically, the leopard has always been associated with pride, valor, and power. The stealthy, lithe creature with the amazing array of spots and markings has stood by the side of kings, emblazoned the flag of war, and decorated the coat of arms for many a member of the aristocracy. But to early Christians, the baneful beast was also a source of disgust, a bastard offspring of an unholy marriage between the lion and the tiger. Its spots were seen as suggestive of sin, the blemishes marking a life riddled with trespasses. Religious scholars believed the animal's coat had the power to lead men astray, the remarkable coloring and design luring the faithful to their doom. Even Dante, in his epic poem The Inferno, used the leopard as a symbol of ethical control, a barrier preventing Virgil's immediate ascent into joy.
Not all views of this predator were so poisoned. The Greeks associated the cat with Dionysus, the God of winemaking. Many saw the ferocious feline as an indication of virility and strength. But always on the outskirts of characterization was the notion of tainted lineage, of perverted power ready to sway humans from their path of righteousness. Even the Egyptians looked down on the creature, making it a recognizable relative of the god Seti, the ruler of all evil. Stanley Kubrick recognized the animal's importance to anthropology and philosophy. In his great dissertation on the place of man within the universe, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a leopard stalks and attacks the ape-men just as they are evolving (learning to use tools and becoming more attuned to controlling their environment). Kubrick reminds us that, no matter how powerful or prescient we become, nature will always provide an element to keep us under control.
The same is true for Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, aging ruler on the tiny island of Sicily. Among the landed gentry, of which he is a high-ranking member, Prince Salina's cunning and craft are legendary. He is known for decisive yet deceptive strategies, using all information and elements at his disposal to plot his actions. He is filled with temper and passion, but his demeanor is captivating and suave. He holds true to the old traditions while dabbling in new studies like astronomy. He wants to feel connected to both the superstitions of religious tradition while embracing the realms of science. He is the guardian of Italian history and culture, a ferocious protector of the values in the past.
But inside the civil unrest of 1860s Italy, Prince Salina is a dying breed, a marked man whose power and position are blamed, as with all other royalty and nobility, of keeping the country away from its people. Lead by the charismatic revolutionary Garibaldi, civilians are rebelling against a class-based system, one filled with feudal lords (of which Prince Salina is one) and divergent national interests (at this time, three conflicting parties rule the country: the Royalists, the Republicans, and the Nationalists). The people dream of a unified Italy—a land where all citizens, be they from the Alps-draped north or the subtropical temperate zones of the south, can feel part of a single unit, a tricolore of representative stations. Men like Prince Salina stand in the way of such social progress. Like the beast deep in the Inferno, keeping Virgil at bay, or the spotted specter tantalizing men with his money and power, the nobleman is now the enemy. For decades he was control and authority. Now he is seated at the right hand of political inequity.
The Leopard, Luchino Visconti's epic masterwork of the upper class in decay and a country in conflict, is a movie so rich, so dense with detail and social significance that it cannot be absorbed all at once. Upon the initial viewing, you will be captivated by the opulent splendor of the sets and locations (the mountains and vistas of Sicily have never looked this breathtaking). You'll marvel at the intricate story woven by Visconti and his screenwriters, matching history with myth, real life with fantasy, all to create a tale of change so majestic in scope it seems to suggest a volume of ancient lore more than a mere motion picture. Through it all, you will sit dumbstruck by the powerful performances of Burt Lancaster (as the Prince), Alain Delon (as his conniving, charming nephew Tancredi), and Claudia Cardinale (easy on the eyes as well as the acting aesthetics), all managed and manipulated by the masterful hand of one of Italy's best directors.
There are those who have tried to connect this glorious creation with American versions of similar stories, most specifically Gone with the Wind. While it can be argued that Margaret Mitchell's soap opera of the South is a clear cousin of this robust revision of Sicilian sentiment, Visconti stays away from the Technicolor O'Hara histrionics to give us a subtle, sumptuous approach to class conflict. Certainly the battle for Palermo suggests the broad strokes and bright colors of the Hollywood classic, but The Leopard is really more interested in the personal dynamics between the have-nots and those soon to have even less.
Visconti, relying on his skill as a stager of operas, tells the tale of The Leopard in three distinct segments. First, the foundation for the story is set—large chunks of exposition and explanation layered on top of each other creating a blanket of (sometimes) baffling rights and duties. Within the first twenty minutes, we are introduced to the Salina family, learn of Garibaldi's landing in Sicily, see the young Tancredi join the rebellion, witness the bloodshed over Palermo, and learn of the family's traditional trip to Donnafugata, a hastily arranged holiday. Interspersed within are the daring insights into the Prince's love of prostitutes, his fascination with science, and his sly, almost sinister efforts behind the scenes; together, these create a concrete bedrock of narrative tension, a stream of stories that will eventually well up and drown the participants. Act two takes us on the trip to Donnafugata, a small village high in the hills. Here we meet the remainder of our cast, the craven nuevo riche Mayor, Don Calogero Sedara, his fetching daughter Angelica, and the rest of the local rabble, eager to help the Salina family as the rebellion moves across the country. It is here that Visconti creates the connections—the lovers and the outcasts, the dutiful and the dilettante. When Tancredi rejects the Prince's daughter, Conchetta, for the far more fertile Angelica, the standard story would set off a string of misunderstandings and honor code violations that would require the saving of face and the demanding of retaliation. But none of that happens in The Leopard. Instead, the impending marriage is embraced, Prince Salina seeing a chance for his favored family member (even over his own sons) to escape the kind of loveless, sexless marriage in which he himself has resorted to infidelity over the many years.
But the pride of The Leopard's three-hour-plus running time is one of the major motion picture set pieces of all time: a 55-minute dress ball where the layers of lies, deceptions, promises, payoffs, tributes, temptations, politics, personalities, philosophies, and traditions come crashing down around the Prince and his insular world. Unlike the French Revolution, which saw royalty reduced to headless corpses stacked in praise for the proletariat, Italy's Il Risorgimento (literally, the reorganization) is a far more subdued and devious affair. Princes like Salina are not taken out into the street and beheaded. No, they are given a far more painful prospect: life as a living laughingstock, a ridiculous reminder of a soiled system in which property and prosperity were held in the hands of a very chosen few. This revolution is more like a disease, a faction of disgruntled agreement that oozes into every lower- to middle-class member of Italy's carved-up country. If the beginning of the movie shows the reasons for the revolution, and the middle attempts to avoid its effects (by running away to the country), then the overly opulent festival—filled with gowns and formal jackets, too much food and even more drink—represents the last hurrah, the final celebration before the forces of change undermine the ruling nobility of Italy. Whether they like it or not, like birds trapped in a gilded cage of their own design and making, they are a soon-to-be-extinct breed, a once-powerful and important lot tossed aside into the role of ridiculed figurehead. Even as they attend their civilized soirée and perform their dances with impeccable manners, their drunken, dithering replacements stand on the sidelines, knowing their turn at the Tarantella is just a few moments away.
It's this final class struggle between the privileged and the impoverished that makes up the majority of the thematic resonance in The Leopard. Indeed, as the divergent elements argue over what kind of future Italy faces (a republic? a democratic monarchy? complete socialism or communism?), there is also a battle for the lasting image of the country. The Bourbon regime flag, a simple golden flower draped across a crisp white background, represents primogeniture at its most misguided. The red, white and green stripes of the now-familiar tricolore banner will soon come to represent all Italians. Buried somewhere in between is the spotted cat of grace and greed, strength and sin—the Salina family's prized Leopard. Indeed, like the ancient thinkers and writers, one can see why the primitive beast, with his deceptive spots, can come to represent the kind of nation the aristocracy is willing to accept. Prince Salina, at the suggestion of his equally crafty nephew Tancredi, abides by a political and power philosophy best described in modern terms as playing all sides against the middle. As long as they are making the suggested moves, staying out of the actual battles, they are still in control. But there is a flaw in this reasoning, a rashness that also infers why the leopard is not the king of the jungle (it may not even be prince…) and will never be the ruler of the government. Such a strategy assumes a place at the table of power, a need for the influence and intelligence of nobility. What The Leopard demonstrates is that, once autonomy and self-rule are tasted by the oppressed masses, it is a hard habit for them to forgo.
The brashness of youth, set against the wisdom of age, creates perhaps the central rift in The Leopard. In many ways, the Prince is proud of Tancredi. He is also extremely jealous. Tancredi is brash where the Prince is controlled. He lives life to the fullest while His Excellency must make do with his intellectualized hobbies and heirloom responsibilities. Tancredi gets a sexual, seductive bride, the kind of woman Salina visits in the brothels of Palermo. In his debonair, distinguished deceptiveness, Tancredi has come to represent the idealized man the Prince perceives he is, or once was. But there is also a harsh reality to this generational gap. Salina sees everything he could have been, might have been, even what still could be today, had he not been burdened with the weight of responsibility and position. So imagine how devastating it is when Prince Salina learns of Tancredi's eventual switch in ideology, from a rebellious Garabaldini to a complacent, cold unifier. The youth is resigned in the fact that the rich have had their day, and that the ways of his daydreaming uncle are almost over. Indeed, the distinctions between Salina, Tancredi, and Angelica represent the warring factions, or the segments of the unifying Italian flag. On one side is green, the agrarian class (to which Angelica belongs), the people who want more say in how their nation is controlled. On the other is red—the symbol for rebellion, for bloodshed, for a communist ideal of complete governmental control (Tancredi's color of choice?). And in the middle, trying to maintain its position while both of these passionate hues fight it out for control of the country, is white, the traditional color of nobility. It's the modern flag vs. the old ideals, in a battle for culture and control.
It's easy to see many of the most magnificent works of the modern cinema inside The Leopard's opulent cinematic tapestries. The film is a virtual blueprint for works like Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (same stifling attention to detail), Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (you will find yourself, sometimes, confusing the two), Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather Trilogy (even down to character names and locations), Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (at least the overdone, dizzying wedding reception), and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (the maestro of the spaghetti Western loves to lose his performers in the vast expansions of the countryside, just like Visconti). Even a modern genre master like Dario Argento finds a kindred spirit in the widescreen scope and epic façades found in Visconti's work.
This brilliant director's switch from the bare-bone basics of classic neo-realism (he was one of the fathers of the movement best illustrated by De Sica's The Bicycle Thief and Rossellini's Open City) to the lavishness of this film is not as big a surprise as one would imagine. Indeed, while this may seem like a pure conflict of moviemaking interests, the temperament and tones between the two are not that divergent. Indeed, neo-realism is the attempt, through detail and truth, to tell the story of everyday people. Though the wealthy live in a world much more mannered than our own (they are truly "different"), it is through the attention to specifics and the undeniable precision in the storytelling that The Leopard becomes a companion piece to all those black-and-white slices of life. We are witnessing another human being's struggle for identity against the ravages of the real world—except, in this case, the tragic hero is a man of means, not a poor beggar on the street.
Visconti is a maestro of imagery, understanding the power in iconography and the emotion in artistry. He fills his cinematic canvas with outrageous riches, frescoes, and friezes marking time, place, and person perfectly. His camera glides effortlessly around and in between scenes, playing spectator to the situations occurring. Occasionally his lens is the eye of God, looking down and judging his flock. At other times, it's an intimate, a confidant given snatches of information or the ability to eavesdrop on essential elements of the plot. In adapting Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa's beloved novel (a huge international success), Visconti stuck to the meat of the saga, the story of the Leopard himself, Prince Salina (the book would go on to account for the history pre-movie, and life after the nobleman's death). And he needed to find an actor capable of handling the role of archetype.
Many would probably never guess, based on his past roles as aggressive, angry anti-heroes, that Burt Lancaster would or could become the controlled, compressed personification of Italy's crumbling creature-comfort class. But in an amazing bit of character craft, Lancaster becomes lost in Salina's etiquette and entropy, suggesting vigor while all the time remaining formal and genteel. It's a brilliant transformation, and it's his center of dignity that sells The Leopard. As his two main costars, both Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale more than hold their own. Cardinale (who made this movie the same year she starred in The Pink Panther) embodies youth and sex in her dark-eyed mystery. Delon is the perfect foil, a flashy leading man who seems to turn even more cynical and safe as he ages (and gains that glorious trademark moustache). Together with a wealth of Italian talent and a director capable of crafting jewels out of celluloid and egos, The Leopard becomes a testament to the fine art of moviemaking, as important a movie to the notion of scale and possibility in film as anything produced during Hollywood's heyday.
Like the roar of a cannon as it sends its fire and stone sailing across the battlefield, The Leopard leaps from the movie screen and directly into the annals of major consideration as one of the greatest films of all time. It's a heady brew, a wine aged in the traditions of the past, preserved for all ages to sip and become intoxicated with. It melts slowly, signaling its intentions only as the multiple layers are exposed and eventually fall away. It's a seminal statement on the clueless conceit of the rich, an exposé of their self-righteous indignation when confronted with the poor plight of the peasant class. It's an ironic joke, a savage satire on how disjointed and self-interested any attempt at unifying Italy (even today) has been. The Leopard is a testament, a time capsule to an era that no one thought would ever end. Only problem was, change was going to happen whether they liked it or wanted it. The seeds of distress were already planted, and the bitter herbs of the disenfranchised had been chewed on long enough. The people who made it possible for the rich to wallow in their decadent lifestyles were fed up and fighting. And even as they attended to their protocol and refined their manners, doom seeped into the soil and spoiled the country for anyone of noble birth. Like the costume ball at the end of The Masque of the Red Death, it's the final fling in the great hall of Donnafugata that seals the fate for all involved. At the end of that celebration, nothing is the same for any member of any class in Italy. Change has come in the night, like fog, on the overlarge footpads of a jungle feline, and it satiated its sharp teeth on the tender meat of the privileged.
There is a magnificent image toward the middle of this movie, one that cements the feelings of its creator perfectly. As the Salinas disembark from their trip, they are covered in dust. Instead of being allowed to clean up, the family must endure the courtesy and the countenance that comes with their position. There will be a mass in celebration of their arrival, and their immediate attendance is mandatory. As the camera tracks across their stiff, rigid bodies, sitting along the ancient pews in the chapel, one gets the distinct impression that we are seeing relics, reliefs from an ancient culture covered in thick layers of dust and clouded in the haze of ages. These are the forgotten facets of Italy. This is nobility at its most frozen in time. Like the mighty beast that Kipling says can never change his spots, this Leopard and his family are forgotten emblems to a distant aspect of life. Unlike the earth-covered aristocrats, the motion picture The Leopard will live on forever.
As commentator Peter Cowie points out in his brilliant, informative narrative track for the DVD release of The Leopard, this is the first Visconti title prepared and issued by the Criterion Collection, and he hopes it was worth the wait. The answer is a resounding "yes," since this is, by far, one of the most lush, gorgeous, and captivating transfers ever crafted by the Kings of Classic Cinema. The Leopard is absolutely breathtaking in its 2.22:1 original aspect ratio, its print filled with majestic landscapes, colorful locations, and intricately detailed sets. Visconti's constant desire to bring the outdoors in to this film is maintained with exceptional contrasts and balanced lighting. This is especially true in the scene where Prince Salina talks with his family priest (and pseudo-historian) Father Pirrone. As Salina discusses confession, he walks over to his bay windows and looks out over the Palermo shoreline. The view is heart-stopping, matching the Prince's description image for image. Sonically, The Leopard also offers a magnificent audio master. Nino Rota, Fellini's favorite composer, creates a musical score that is as overwhelmingly luxuriant as the visuals. The dialogue is perfectly maintained (even though Lancaster and Delon are dubbed into Italian) and the subtitles match the dialogue's sentiments expertly.
Typical of a Criterion disc of this magnitude, the company goes all out, offering a three DVD special edition that even shames other efforts by this studio. Starting with Cowie's excellent commentary, we are thrust into a wonderful world of behind-the-scenes insight and information. Cowie does double duty on his track, discussing the making of, as well as the symbolic elements in, the film. He points out the scenes that were trimmed or outright deleted for the American edition of the film (and how this affected its version of the story) and the changes made to Di Lampedusa's original work. Though he can sound very rehearsed at times, Cowie's charming, intelligent discussion is an excellent compliment to the film itself.
Equally enthralling are the documentaries and featurettes on Disc Two. A Dying Breed: The Making of The Leopard is a one-hour look at the creation of this classic, told by some of the people closely involved with the project. They discuss Visconti at length, his way around a set and his use of the camera. There are also indications of his attention to detail and tireless perfectionism. Of the individuals here (Claudia Cardinale, screenwriter Suso Cecchi D'Amico, and DP Giuseppe Rotunno among others), American director Sydney Pollack sticks out. He apparently handled the American version of the film and discusses the elements that went into translating Visconti (which Pollack admits was not done very well) to a Western audience.
Another interview with producer Goffredo Lombardo offers more gossip surrounding the film's troubled production. Titanus, Lombardo's studio, was bankrupted by this project, and yet he speaks of the movie with such unapologetic endearments (he calls it his "favorite child") that you'd never know a financial issue existed. He admits to Visconti's lavishness with sets and decor (he had an entire castle in Donnafugata rebuilt), but argues these extravagances they were necessary to bring the vision of Di Lampedusa's novel to life. Thanks to University of Pennsylvania professor Millicent Marcus, we get an idea of the historical accuracy and actual events that played out during the Il Risorgimento. After watching the film for a first time, Marcus's discussion is a real eye-opener. Along with trailers, newsreels, poster art, stills, behind-the-scenes photos, and other marketing material, a real difference between the American and European way of handling a motion picture property is uniquely illustrated.
But the most profound bonus here is an entirely new remaster of the American release of The Leopard. Featuring Lancaster's real voice (which oddly, removes some of the dignity and gravitas from Prince Salina) and shorn of over 25 minutes of context, the movie becomes a glorified costume drama, missing several sequences that explain the subtext of power and control held by the aristocracy. Starting with a scroll that explains the unsettled nature of Italian rule, the movie follows Visconti's vision fairly closely (even if the 2.22:1 aspect ratio is squeezed down to 1.85:1 and is therefore missing some of the director's more artistic framing and composition). But the first major change comes on the trip to Donnafugata. Where once there was a confrontation at the checkpoint, a mere announcement of Prince Salina's presence makes the barrier magically disappear. Instead of a night at a horrible, squalid inn, the family taking refuge upstairs while Father Pirrone talks politics, we transition instantly to the picnic in the mountains. Perhaps the oddest aspect of the American version is the dubbing. Lancaster originally filmed his material in English and was dubbed into Italian for Visconti's version. When the movie was taken to America, the English was nowhere to be found. So along with re-recording all the other dialogue, Lancaster had to re-dub his own performance. This creates an unnatural element to the film, a sense of sonic strangeness that robs most of the movie of its splendor. With its shortened running time and the missing subtext, the American version of The Leopard is an interesting anomaly, and a welcome addition to this DVD set.
Up until the early '80s, you could still see the lot where the Vail house once stood. It was expansive and impressive, much larger than the land where the elementary school down the block sat. The vaguest outline of the manor could be made out—walls and wings, entrances and terraces. A line out to the side was still there as well, the suggested sign of a covered atrium that lead to the gazebo. If you avoided the posted warnings and stepped inside the gates (forced open by some unknown entity years before), you could walk in the presence of the mansion's ghost. You could imagine its splendor and drink in its decadence. You could follow the faded pathway to this peculiar pergola and look out over the remaining lot to imagine the impeccable lawn parties and fancy dress dinners that took place upon it. Closer to the back, near a strangely mounded part of the grass, you can almost see the concrete block that still covers the entrance to the basement. Before the house was destroyed, it was a passageway for local teenagers, drunk on cheap beer and adventure, to enter this eerie world and test their mantle. It was also the last access into that long forgotten realm of the Vails' world of wealth.
As Prince Salina walks out of the ballroom where partygoers still frolic, even as the staff has started to sweep the spectacle away, he turns back and looks through the door. He realizes this is the end. This is the last time he will ever experience anything as extravagant as this night. His position will live on, out of respect and nostalgia. But he will never again be The Leopard. His time has passed. And just like that house on the corner of Maple and Kenwood, he too will fall away, and turn to dust. All that will remain is the memory. It's all that ever remains.
Not guilty. Great film. Great transfer. Great sound. Great package.
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Scales of Justice
• New Transfer of the 161-Minute American Release, with English-Language Dialogue (Including Burt Lancaster's Actual Voice)
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