Why I Love… #74: The Leopard

Year: 1963

Director: Luchino Visconti

Stars: Burt Lancaster (Prince Don Fabrizio Salina), Claudia Cardinale (Angelica Sedara / Bertiana), Alain Delon (Tancredi Falconeri), Paolo Stoppa (Don Calogero Sedara), Rina Morelli (Princess Maria Stella Salina), Lucilla Morlacchi (Concetta)

Genre: Literary Adaptation / Drama

The Leopard: A dilettante’s dissection. Some admissions upfront. 1) I’ve not finished Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s book on which this film is based, though I have started it; I’m on page 41. 2) I’ve no particular knowledge of this period of Italian history other than that which Visconti’s film depicts for me. Therefore I approach The Leopard not as any kind of expert on its subject matter, but as a fan of the film itself. I’ve wanted to talk about The Leopard for a while, but I’ve felt intimidated by its venerated status. A giant of world cinema and one not without its controversies, Visconti’s 185 minute epic threatens to quieten me. What can I add to the highbrow back-and-forth that already exists for this movie without sounding desperate and pretentious? I’m going to try my luck, but I feel as though I am wading into waters that might eclipse me.

As aesthetic experiences go, The Leopard is one of the most generous I could name. Long, languid, but sumptuously enjoyable, it goes in that very particular top drawer of movies that depict the decay of (or within) high society, yet do so from a viewpoint of almost unfathomable beauty. Twin this with Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and you could lose most of a Sunday to some of cinema’s most lavish first world problems. It is ultimately this rather hollow vantage point from which I derive most of my pleasures when it comes to The Leopard.

Burt Lancaster, whiskered and stout-chested, plays Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, a member of the Sicilian aristocracy who finds his family and comfortable way of life threatened by the revolutionary uprising of Garibaldi in 1860. Prideful of his youthful and energetic nephew Tancredi, Salina tries to find a place of balance and safety for his kin in those tumultuous times; his is a struggle for survival. The impoverished plight of the Sicilian working class are not his concern. Visconti reveals this in one of the film’s only apparent embellishments from the source material; an early battle sequence. The peasants’ streets become a battleground for the bloodshed. This is their only representation, but their exclusion is fitting to the Prince’s worldview. They are not on his radar.

There is comedy in how Visconti portrays this selfishness. When Salina decamps with his family to Donnafugata to avoid the unrest, their journey paints them as opulent refugees. This is followed in short order by a sequence in which officials prove ineffectual at announcing (fraudulent) election results, as the community’s brass band keep interrupting them. The world they seek to dominate isn’t listening. This is a story of the most fortunate attempting to perpetuating themselves, and it’s a quietly, slyly damning one at that. Both Salina and Tancredi are opportunists. They allow their political loyalties to slide whichever way affords them the better outcome. They have no integrity but that which they project. Appearances are everything.

And oh how Visconti colours the picture accordingly. Reportedly going way, way over budget in order to achieve the resplendent imagery that The Leopard affords us, his film is among the richest feasts for the eyes I can recall, most notably in the extended ball sequence which makes up much of the final hour. He and director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno favour long painterly takes that encourage the viewer to appreciate the framing and textures of the images being shown to them, while the use of colour in set dressing, costumes, even exteriors appears minutely judged; again recalling Kubrick’s megalomaniacal fastidiousness. The Leopard feels considered to a fault.

This aesthetic beauty extends to Tancredi and also Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) with whom he becomes smitten in the film’s second half. Does cinema have a more physically beautiful couple? Alain Delon’s jaw line would have modern Hollywood swooning, while Cardinale makes a play for the most exquisite depiction of feminine youth and beauty of her generation. Though Angelica is at times uncouth, her entrance halfway through the film is breathtaking, and Visconti is only too happy to embellish the romance between the two. Nino Rota’s lush score swoons when Angelica runs in from the rain upon hearing of her love’s return. It’s shamelessly romantic, even if their union is, in part, pure convenience for Salina’s survival.

It also enhances the impression that Tancredi is as much a dilettante as I fear I am here, potentially swimming out of my depth. He is initially betrothed to Concetta, yet he is swayed (understandably) by Angelica. This mirrors his taciturn dabbling as a soldier, fighting for his own reputation rather than the cause as he flip-flops between sides in victory; a literal glory-supporter. He then returns as quickly to his life of luxury, and is part of Salina’s company on their arrival in Donnafugata, the patch he wears briefly for his eye becomes but a roguish fashion accessory.

Even when it comes to his interaction with Angelica, Visconti colours their romance with the film’s grander observations. Romantic as it is, when Tancredi chases Angelica around the grounds of some dilapidated estate, it’s all to easy to also see the metaphor; that their privileged existence is a cultural dead-end. They frolic in ignorance, yet despite the class tones or underlying political rhetoric, their love is as beautiful as Angelica’s crimson gown. Visconti may comment sourly on their irrelevance, but he can’t help but play the scene foremost as an ode to the heart in full flight.

Yet Tancredi and Angelica also serve to underline one of the film’s other preoccupations, which is the encroaching irrelevancy of Salina. While Salina shrewdly knows that he will benefit from their union, his time is over as the country surges for reform. Though he clings on with great dignity, it is with increasing resignation. By the time we reach that long, luxurious ball sequence, he has receded. The girls sit in their expansive dresses on the floor, chirping gaily, the fluttering of their fans like feathers. They recall so many birds. This contrasted with the Prince, sat in a chair, mopping his brow, wearily. He looks old, used up, spent. The vitality of the girls and their chatter casts him as a fading figure – out of time, out of relevancy. Garibaldi and the bourgeoisie have overthrown him, but damn if he doesn’t bow out with grace. Lancaster is, pardon the crudeness, one suave motherfucker here.

By this point Salina has already acknowledged he is out of step when he refuses a position in the senate. His perceived liberalism is a fraud; yet his reasons are more self-aware than politically apathetic. He has acknowledged that he would wield no power in such a position. His time is over.

The Leopard has not and is not always thought of as such a condemnation of high society, but I tend to see it as quite satirical, even scathing in its depiction of gratuitous privilege. Yet, to me, its political concerns are secondary to its sheer unequivocal beauty. You can damn the film for its leisurely pace, but I celebrate it. Time expands at the ball, its distorted size when compared to the rest of the picture enhances its depiction of excess. But its pure enjoyment to behold. This is a film to sink yourself into, to allow yourself to be lulled by. In that sense it is a curious contradiction for me; I nod at what I perceive to be barbed attacks on the super-rich, yet I swoon at the lusciousness of their wealth so gloriously presented by Visconti. In the end my reaction to The Leopard is as contested as the film’s content has been over the years. It’s a feast you can gorge yourself on, even if it might make you feel a little sickly in the process. One of cinema’s most indulgent treats.

Did I get out of my depth…?

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