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Il Gattopardo (1963)

Le Guépard, The Leopard

Directed by:

Luchino Visconti

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 178 minutes

US Certificate: PG UK Certificate: PG

On DVD

Country: France, Italy

Luchino Visconti was a man of contradictions – born into aristocracy, but himself an avowed Marxist – and it is these very contradictions which are played out dramatically in ‘The Leopard’, his sweeping epic of change and continuity set, like his earlier ‘Senso’, in the Risorgimento period of 1860-1862, when Italy was undergoing a revolutionary, at times violent process of unification. Focussing on a family of the Sicilian nobility headed by Don Fabrizio Falconeri, the Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster), and taking its name from the noble animal that appears on the family’s crest, ‘The Leopard’ offers a series of widescreen Technicolor tableaux that capture an era of major upheaval and an aristocracy collaborating to avoid, or at least slow down, its own extinction.

The Prince himself is a man of contradictions. As the opening diptych of scenes shows, when he is not leading his family together in prayer in the chapel of their ancestral palace, he is visiting a prostitute in the backstreets of Palermo. He is a man who understands the compromises and accommodations required of life, and so when his beloved nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) goes off to join Garibaldi’s revolutionary forces, the Prince is able to recognize that this will ultimately be to the advantage of the whole family. Tancredi returns a war hero, and prevents the household from being swept away in the tide of history; but he also abandons his staid relationship with the aristocratic Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), preferring the less refined pleasures (and bigger dowry) offered by Angelica Sedara (Claudia Cardinale) – and so the Prince agrees to marry his own dynasty’s destiny to that of Angelica’s father, the nouveau riche snob Don Calogero (Paolo Stoppa), brokering a marital agreement to the mutual benefit of all parties. Life can go on, the Falconeris can survive – and yet, at a society ball marking Angelica’s entry into society, the aging Prince is confronted by his own mortality, and grows weary with the company of those who are soon to take his place.

By adapting Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s posthumous novel, which was an unequivocal lament for the passing of Lampedusa’s own aristocratic class and a vicious critique of all things new, Visconti risked (and indeed earned) condemnation from his fellow Marxists – but in fact the film’s view of Italian history is too complex to be reduced to the ideologies of the right or the left. Falling somewhere between cynicism and pessimism, it shows the descending upper class and the ascending middle class, for all their apparent differences in manners and etiquette, to be cats born from the same litter. Despite the political turmoil, shifting of allegiances and time-serving which makes up Visconti’s vision, when the Sicilian dust finally settles nothing has really changed except the faces of those holding power – and in the 45-minute ball sequence with which the film ends, progress is figured as a dance which circles endlessly through the vast rooms and halls of privilege, with participants gliding smoothly from one side to the other, partners being constantly swapped, and only those with money, influence or breeding being admitted to the party. ‘The Leopard’ offers an analysis of Italy as a society in stasis, content merely to slumber through history – but the film leaves it to the viewer to decide whether this is a reactionary attack on the very notion of change, or a quietly insistent wake-up call to the proletariat.

It is also, of course, an extraordinary piece of period realism, shot on location in Sicily, full of Visconti’s characteristic attention to detail, and acted faultlessly by a stellar international cast.

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It's Got: An outstanding central performance from Burt Lancaster (who perfectly embodies nobility of character, and seems to age visibly in the final sequence); Claudia Cardinale revealing everything you need to know about her character’s free-spirited vulgarity simply by laughing like a horse; meticulously detailed widescreen sets; grim social satire, and an even grimmer view of history and progress (not to mention the Church).

It Needs: To be seen more than once for full appreciation of its subtle complexity.

DVD Extras Scene selection; 2.21:1 (16x9 anamorphic) high-defininition digital transfer from 70mm widescreen overseen by original director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno; full audio commentary (by academics David Forgas and Rossana Capitano) which provides intelligent background information on the film’s literary, political and historical contexts, offers details on the production, and discusses the social semiotics of costumes and corsets; optional commentary subtitles; excerpt from Gaurdian interview (at NFT) with Claudia Cardinale (10min, with optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired) in which, amongst other things, she contrasts the tightly controlled sets of Visconti’s ‘The Leopard’ with the anarchic, scriptless sets of Federico Fellini’s ‘8 ½’ (on which she was working at the same time), and reveals that her tight costume prevented her from sitting and gave her blood blisters; original trailer (with optional English subtitles). DVD Extras Rating: 8/10

Alternatives:

'Doctor Zhivago', 'La Dolce Vita', 'Senso', 'The Damned'

Summary

A sprawling historical drama in which history itself is an endless, tiresome dance between vested interests.

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