The Leopard (1963)
Directed by Luchino Visconti
Written by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Luchino Visconti
Produced by Goffredo Lombardo, Pietro Notarianni
Starring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale, Romolo Valli, Paolo Stoppa, Lucilla Morlacchi, Rina Morelli, Serge Reggiani, Leslie French, Terence Hill, Pierre Clémenti, Giuliano Gemma, Evelyn Stewart, Ottavia Piccolo, Carlo Valenzano, Anna Maria Bottini, Lola Braccini, Howard Nelson Rubien
“To overlook forms a large part of the work of ruling.”
Risorgimento looms ineludible in the twilight of a Sicilian principality, whose aging dynast (Lancaster) wisely resigns to an eventual abdication that impels his efforts to secure his posterity’s future by nurturing the democratic instruments of national unification and conciliating his moribund aristocracy with succeeding, ascendant arrivistes of the mercantile class. That former objective is accomplished via plebiscite, and the latter actuated by arranging the marriage of the prince’s unscrupulously ambitious nephew (Delon), renowned for his heroism as one of Garibaldi’s redshirts, and the ravishing daughter (Cardinale) of a wealthy, wily parvenu (Stoppa), whose bumbling bearing and tastelessness enshroud a rare guile. Readers of Tomasi’s grand historical novel shouldn’t expect from Visconti’s lavish yet conscientiously clipped and condensed motion picture a version faithful to its source: the royal family’s beloved, essentially emblematical dog Bendicò merely occupies its periphery; Delon’s and Cardinale’s amatory betrothed are recharacterized to satisfy a tidier plot, as is the regent’s shunned daughter (Morlacchi); the book’s devastating, final chapters depicting its monarch’s transcendental quietus and the fate of his daughters are exquisite in print yet unfit for film, and rightly omitted; existential contrasts of mortality and eternity, conclusion and continuity poetically expatiated in the text are merely alluded here. Within sumptuous interiors replete with masterly portraiture, frescoed ceilings and gilt appointments, ornate relievos and statuary, and alfresco against the natural majesty of rocky Sicilian landscapes, Visconti’s focus on the story’s erotic and political aspects effects and constitutes the core of its drama, as when the philandering potentate’s shrift father (Valli) reproaches his master for backstairs advoutry or verbalizes the Vatican’s solicitudes, a potential love triangle leaves Morlacchi’s virtuous princess spurned, and an organist (Reggiani) disenfranchised by the wrongful invalidation of his sole dissenting vote harangues the minor monarch who he reveres above all others. Played perfectly (albeit typically dubbed) by a choice cast attired in costumes fabricated by Piero Tosi with the same attention to the period’s details as that endued to Mario Garbuglia’s production design, each development unfolds at a pace as stately as its protagonist in slow pans and painterly static shots, its contemplations in stark silences as stirring as Nino Rota’s soaring symphony, repurposed as a score as fit as any other of the production’s elements, and breathing the 19th century’s impassioned Romanticism. Lancaster’s liege is a representative of royalty in extremis and homage to the author’s great-grandfather, who fully fathoms the mold of his people, value of quiet compromise and necessity of sacrifice for survival. Lacking the entire substance, pathos and punch of the novel, this nonpareil of Italian formalism still stirs the spirit in its evocation of a nobility and order lost to accession.
Recommended for a double feature paired with The Godfather.