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THE LEOPARD

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale, Paolo Stoppa, Rina Morelli, Romolo Valli
Director: Luchino Visconti
Audio: Italian 1.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 2.21:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 185 minutes
Release Date: June 8, 2004

"We were the leopards, the lions. Those who will take our place will be jackals, hyenas."

Film ****

Luchino Visconti, one of Italy's finest directors, is often considered the father of Italian neorealism.  His first film, Ossessione (1942), was a loose adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice.  More importantly, it employed a naturalistic setting to create a realistic portrayal of existence for the common people.  This innovative, new style revitalized the Italian film industry and heralded the arrival of neorealism, the cinematic movement that would dominate the Italian cinema for the following decade.

Visconti, however, would not remain a neorealist for long.  His second feature, La terra trema (1948), already began to move beyond the boundaries of neorealism, showcasing a more operatic cinematic approach that would become the hallmark of his directorial career.  Visconti was an infrequent director, with his subsequent feature films each achieving great anticipation.  Of his later films, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963) more than any other was the epitome of his sweeping and grandiose visual style.

Set in the mid-nineteenth century during a period of political upheaval in Sicily, The Leopard follows events in the lives of the Prince of Salina and his family.  A faithful adaptation of a popular 1958 Giuseppe di Lampedusa novel, The Leopard focuses on a recurrent theme in Visconti's films - the slow disintegration of the family.  This metaphor can be extended in the film to represent Sicilian society in general, particularly in the film's volatile atmosphere.  The title itself is an analogy, comparing the noblesse of the old order to the less refined mannerisms of the new guard.

The Leopard is set during a period of social unrest and civil war quite like that seen in the American film Gone with the Wind.  One may even see visual similarities in the opulent appearances and sweeping panoramic backdrops of both films.  However, The Leopard is a far less melodramatic film and offers a more penetrating depiction of the socio-political uncertainty of the post-war environment and its effects on the old aristocracy.

To best appreciate The Leopard, it is important to understand the political undercurrents of the film.  Italy, circa 1859, was a fragmented collection of independent states, each controlled by different ruling interests.  The Papal states resided in central Italy.  Towards the south, King Ferdinand II ruled over the Bourbon states of Naples and Sicily.  The Savoy States were ruled by Victor Emmanuel, whose minister would later back the revolutionary general Garibaldi.  Austria, after the Napoleonic Wars, had seized control of Northern Italy, establishing in the process the birth of ambitious plans to eventually re-unify Italy.

Among the various important figures of the day, Garibaldi was perhaps the most charismatic.  Having trained in guerilla warfare in Latin America, he had developed into a skilled leader and tactician who, after the death of King Ferdinand II, led a rag-tag volunteer army of students, idealists, and liberalists upon the shores of Marsala, Sicily in May, 1860.  The island state at the time was divided among those loyal to the royal Bourbon government and those supportive of the surging re-unification ideals.  Rousing victories by Garibaldi's army at Castelvetrano and Palermo against the royal troops further converted the sympathetic masses to his side.  These romanticized battles would be but a few small steps in a long series of events during this period, known as the Risorgimento (the Resurgence).  Even Garibaldi's eventual defeat at Aspromonte would not sway the tide of changing sentiments.  Instead, the Risorgimento would result in the rise of the middle classes and the ultimate creation of a unified and democratic Italy (as symbolized in the tricolor flag of green, white, and red).  The inevitable impact, of course, would be the slow but certain decline of the aristocracy as the central ruling class.

Lampedusa's novel Il Gattopardo dealt with this decline of the aristocracy.  It recreated a world where the splendor and luxury of the past was fading away, particularly under the whirling shifts of power just beyond the immediate perception of the characters.  Lampedusa's vision would be reproduced in Visconti's film, for Visconti, though progressive in his views, was himself born into an aristocratic family.  As such, he was able to approach the Risorgimento from seemingly opposing points of views.  One might even sense in the central character of the sympathetic but conflicted Prince of Salina something of Visconti himself (Burt Lancaster, who played the role, presumably based his portrayal on Visconti)!

Visconti had been initially uncertain about the American actor for the film's central role.  Among Visconti's original choices for the role of the Prince had been Laurence Olivier, and the director alternatively referred to Lancaster as "that American gangster" or "cowboy."  Nevertheless, Lancaster displayed a commanding on-screen presence in the film which ultimately converted Visconti.  The two would later become great friends, even collaborating again a decade later on another film.  Lancaster, for his part, always expressed great pride in his work in The Leopard, which featured his own personal favorite role.

In The Leopard, this Prince of Salina represents the aristocratic ruling class in general.  The Prince is a dignified but aging aristocrat who watches the tides of change alter the only world he has known.  He recognizes that social and political change are inevitable, but as a member of the old order of nobles, the Prince realizes his uncomfortable position in a society in transition.  Although he possesses a liberal and open-minded view, he is aware that there is little room for him in the new order of things:  "I am a member of the old ruling class, hopelessly linked to the past regime...I belong to an unfortunate generation straddling two worlds and ill at ease in both."

The Prince's opposite, introduced much later in the film, is Calógero, a member of the nouveau riche of Italian middle-class society.  The decline of one class and the resurgence of another is the essence of the Risorgimento, which the film mirrors in its symbolic union, by the film's conclusion, between the Prince's own nephew and Calógero's daughter.  The Leopard's three principal characters are thus the Prince (Lancaster), his nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), and Angelica Sedŕra (Claudia Cardinale).

The Leopard commences at the Prince's home during Mass.  The arrival of the morning's letter announces the landing of Garibaldi's troops upon Sicilian shores (thereby establishing the time period as May, 1860).  So at last, the Risorgimento has arrived in Sicily, and while its immediate effects are subtle (much of the struggles between Garibaldi's army and the royal troops will be off-screen), the changes to come are inevitable.  The film follows the Prince's family as events behind the civil revolt unfold, especially with the departure of the Prince's young and idealist nephew to join the revolutionary cause.  The nephew will leave, in fact, with the Prince's blessing.

What follows is one of two magnificent set pieces in The Leopard.  The film recreates the epic storming of Palermo by Garibaldi's army.  While this sequence injects some action and excitement into the story, more significantly, it also establishes the fickle nature of the Prince's nephew, who switches alliances easily from the aristocracy to the revolutionary spirit and eventually back again.

"For things to remain the same, everything must change."  This is a sentiment first cited by Tancredi, and then later by the Prince himself, as both reflect upon the current political atmosphere that is descending upon their world.  In many ways, the nephew is an image of the Prince as a younger man; the nephew's introduction in the film is shown literally as a reflection in the Prince's mirror while he shaves, suggesting that both men are more alike than they may realize.

The film continues through the summer and fall months, as the Prince takes his family to their vacation palace in Donnafugata.  Even in this small, remote setting, the political tidings have stirred the general populace's interest.  The town, in a somewhat farce-like plebiscite in October, 1860, votes to annex itself to the Savoy States in support of re-unification.  It is in this middle portion of the film that the characters of Don Calógero and his daughter are introduced. 

The Prince himself is later approached by an emissary from the reunification effort to accept a nomination as Senator in the new government structure.  While his sympathetic leanings and his honorable ideals make him a fine candidate, in the end, the Prince realizes that his aristocratic upbringing cannot be abandoned and that for better or worse, he is too old to truly change his ways: "Your intention is good, but it comes too late...What you need is a man who is good at blending his personal interests with vague public ideals."  It is a changing of the guard, with the Prince ultimately suggesting Don Calógero as a candidate instead for the Senate.

And so, we come to the film's famous conclusion with what is surely the most elaborate and extensive ball sequence ever devised for film.  Occupying the entire final hour of the film, this luxurious, formal celebration serves as Angelica's debutante party and is the visual centerpiece of the film.  While some important plot elements are interspersed throughout this sequence, the main thrust of the storyline has essentially been presented by this point and the ball sequence is thus allowed to unfold naturally and casually with only a few narrative interruptions.

In this ball, members of the aristocracy and the nouveau riche will come together in companionship and celebration.  Tancredi and Angelica announce their engagement.  Tancredi, having by now re-aligned his sympathies once more, confirms a certain duplicity in his actions that ultimately reveals his differences from his uncle.  Calógero, the de facto figurehead of Donnafugata, is shown to possess an unrefined callousness but nevertheless represents the new prominence of the middle class in Italy's (and Sicily's) ruling structure.

The Prince, in watching the proceedings, recognizes his own symbolic passing.  He is almost reduced to a spectator at the ball.  In a moment of solitude, he reflects with morbid fascination upon a painting (Grueze's "Death of a Just Man").  In his final hurrah, he dances with Angelica to a Verdi waltz under the appreciative gaze of the revelers.  The dance offers the Prince one final moment of glory, a fleeting glimmer of his departed youth and power, before conceding his social status to the new order of the bourgeoisie.

Visconti suggests that this new bourgeoisie will somehow be less polished and formal in its decorum than the old ways.  Yet for better or worse, the Risorgimento and its repercussions have established a new Italy.  The country has changed, and Sicily with it, too.  But in the end, perhaps the new democratic order will suit Italians and Sicilians well after all.

On its premiere, The Leopard was awarded the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Festival.  The film, with its sheer scale and wondrous opulence, represented Visconti at the peak of his creativity and in the intervening years has established itself as a towering achievement in Italian cinema.  Few, if any, Italian films can compare to the scoop and grandeur of The Leopard, either visually or thematically.  And alongside Fellini's 8 1/2, The Leopard is certainly among the greatest Italian films of the last half-century.

Video ****

The Leopard is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.21:1 using Super Technirama, a widescreen process adopted by Technicolor.  The transfer was supervised by the film's director of photography, Giuseppe Rotunno, and was created from the original 35mm 8-perforation negative.  The picture quality looks absolutely stunning, with breath-takingly vivid colors and gorgeous panoramas.  The film purportedly cost 3,000 million liras, and that expense can be seen in the lush and exquisite cinematography of the Sicilian countryside and particularly of the stately vacation palace in Donnafugata.

The appearance of the film rivals that of Kubrick's epic Barry Lyndon, one of the greatest acknowledged masterpieces of the period piece genre.  The Leopard's baroque color palate and the sumptuous nature of its frescoes and canvases make many scenes appear composed almost as paintings, occasionally even surpassing the high-water mark of Barry Lyndon in terms of sheer artistry and the authentic recreation of a by-gone era.  Fortunately, the Criterion print contains hardly any instances of aging and nearly perfectly preserves the beauty of the film's cinematography.  Kudos to Criterion for a fantastic video presentation!

Viewers who prefer to watch the American cut of The Leopard will see a transfer created from a 4-perforation 35mm interpositive. The aspect ratio is 2.35:1, and the length, at 161 minutes, is shorter than the original Italian film.  Overall, the American cut is slightly more degraded than the Italian version but is still quite acceptable.

Audio ***

The Leopard is presented in its original Italian 1.0 sound (the American version of the film offers an alternate English-dubbed soundtrack).  Sound is directed to the center channel speaker, although wider dispersal of the mono sound is possible.  For the most part, the sound quality is pleasant and clear, with post-dubbing that approximates the lip motions of the actors (many Italian films of this era were filmed silently and post-dubbed later).

If the music of The Leopard is at times strongly reminiscent of the Godfather films, that can be directly attributed to the score by composer Nino Rota, who not only contributed to several Frederico Fellini films but also wrote the scores for Coppola's Godfather films!

Features ****

Criterion proudly presents The Leopard in a three-disc set.  The original Italian film can be found in its entirety on disc one.  Also included on this disc is a commentary track by film scholar Peter Cowie.  He mentions in his commentary Visconti's mentorship under Renoir as well as Visconti's own aristocratic views of the Risorgimento period during which The Leopard takes place.  Cowie also points out some of the scenes missing in the American version and briefly outlines the careers of the film's three main stars - Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale (a radiant Italian beauty who was having a banner year, having also appeared in Fellini's masterpiece 8 1/2 that same year).  For the film enthusiast, Cowie also elucidates how The Leopard was a huge influence on Coppola's Godfather films and Scorsese's The Age of Innocence.

As a great bonus feature, the English-dubbed version of The Leopard can be found on disc three.  At 161 minutes, it is somewhat shorter than the Italian version but does feature Burt Lancaster's actual speaking voice.  To be honest, the Italian version is superior, not only because it is longer and complete but because the Italian voices are more convincing than the American accents, which sound out of place and un-authentic in what is essentially a film about Italian history.

The bulk of the bonus features can be found on disc two.  The main feature here is A Dying Breed: The Making of The Leopard.  This new one-hour documentary rounds up several of the surviving participants from The Leopard to provide their recollections and memories of work on the film.  Included are former members of the crew, the screenwriters, and also star Claudia Cardinale.  Director Syndey Pollack, who re-cut the film and re-dubbed it for the original American release, appears too and freely admits that his version of the film was decidedly inferior to Visconti's original vision.

There are two interviews on this DVD.  First is one with Goffredo Lombardo (20 min.) that offers the producer an opportunity to spin many yarns about the creation of The Leopard.  Despite temporarily bankrupting Lombardo's production company, the film remains his personal favorite today.  Lombardo speaks enthusiastically about the work on the screenplay, the initial meeting between Visconti and the eventual lead actor, Burt Lancaster, and filming of the battle and ballroom sequences (the two most expensive set pieces in the film).

In the second bonus interview (13 min.), film historian Millicent Marcus discusses the historical setting of the film.  Professor Marcus offers brief descriptions of the most significant leaders of the Risorgimento and some of the important events of this critical period in Italy's history.  In fact, many viewers may find the information provided here to be invaluable in setting the stage for The Leopard, and I would certainly recommend watching this feature before watching the film itself.

Promotional materials round out the rest of the bonus features.  Included are three trailers, one for Italian audiences and two for Americans.  Italian newsreels (3 min.) briefly cover the premiere of The Leopard and offer glimpses of the Nastri Awards ceremony.  Finally, there is a stills gallery containing photographs and posters for the film, divided into sections entitled "Unwelcome News" (13 photographs), "Battle of Palermo" (18), "Donnafugata" (21), "The Ball" (32, mostly focusing on the very beautiful Claudia Cardinale!), and "Posters" (12).

Lastly, the package insert offers an essay about The Leopard by film historian Michael Wood.  The essay compares the film to the novel as well as Visconti's interpretation of events to that of Lampedusa, the novel's author.

Summary:

A grand, stirring epic filled with lush imagery and sweeping panoramas, The Leopard is one of Italy's most celebrated costume dramas.  This Criterion release truly honors Visconti's masterpiece of Italian cinema, which is finally making an extremely long-overdue U.S. home video debut.  As such, The Leopard is an essential addition to the DVD library of all film enthusiasts.  Highly recommended!