In the 1860s, a dying aristocracy struggles to maintain itself against a harsh Sicilian landscape. The film traces with a slow and deliberate rhythm the waning of the noble home of Fabrizio Corbero, Prince of Salina (the Leopard) and the corresponding rise to eminence of the enormously wealthy ex-peasant Don Calogero Sedara. The prince himself refuses to take active steps to halt the decline of his personal fortunes or to help build a new Sicily but his nephew Tancredi, Prince of Falconeri swims with the tide and assures his own position by marrying Don Calogero's beautiful daughter Angelica. The climatic scene is the sumptuous forty-minute ball, where Tancredi introduces Angelica to society. Written by
Visconti's best film and the Greatest Italian Film of All Time...
Luchino Visconti was the last scion of the Visconti di Modrone family, one of the oldest and richest families in Italy. He was also a lifelong member of the Communist party, whose first major masterpiece, LA TERRA TREMA is one of the harshest and most compassionate films about the lives of Sicilian fishermen, which was furthermore shot in the Sicilian dialect and released in Northern Italy with the appropriate subtitles. Andre Bazin noted that the fishermen of that film seemed imbued with the nobility of Renaissance Princes. As an artist, Visconti was like his greatest character, Prince Fabrizio, "straddling two worlds and not comfortable in either." "The Leopard" is set in the period of the Risorgimento, the Re-Unification of Italy. It was in this period that a group of principalities and isolated city-states grouped together to form a single nation, the Modern Italy more or less as it exists today. The film is however set in Sicily, the small island situated below the toes of the Giant Boot of Italy. A small island that in centuries was invaded and conquered by foreign nations and rulers and never had a say in the running of it's land. The promise of "being a free state in a free country", articulated by the Chevalley(Leslie French), is for the Sicilians, too late or not enough, when they are charitable or merely the latest in a long line of outsider powers ruling the small region of golden fields and beautiful mountains that is uncaring of the problems of the people or the Salina family.
In the middle of this turmoil is Don Fabrizio Corbera, the Prince of Salina. A fictional aristocrat modeled in part on the grandfather of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. As incarnated by Burt Lancaster, Salina is a man of great presence and intelligence, he claims he is 45 but realizes at once that he is already very old when he learns that his daughter Conchetta is in love with his nephew Tancredi Falconeri(Alain Delon). He realizes that his daughter is no match for the ambitious and handsome nephew and that all his family has left is a name and fading splendor but no money at all. However Anjelica Sedara(Claudia Cardinale) is a Goddess and her father is as rich and upwardly mobile as he is crass and vulgar.
IL GATTOPARDO is a film that deals with the birth of the Middle Class. 19th Century Europe witnesses the slow disintegration of the aristocratic families and the arrival of the middle-class mercantile consumerist faction in it's wake. The film more importantly shows this process, gradually and symbolically but also precisely rendering the machinations in detail. Dozens of films can recreate history by simply play-acting an event, it's another thing to show it as a process. This is one of the great achievements of Visconti. The middle-class, the bourgeoisie will take power but it can do so step by step. First it supports a peasant-led popular revolution only to compromise it, then it accepts democracy only to sabotage it, and then through marriage establishing itself as the chief ruling class of a nation giving the old Leopards a shiny new cage in a stately zoo, in effect allowing the aristocracy to survive as the walking dead.
Released in 1963, Visconti's film must have felt a little incongruous. A big international production on a scale not seen since the commercial disaster of Ophuls' LOLA MONTES, an adaptation of a respected literary source and starring popular international stars - Lancaster, Delon, Cardinale. This was the period of the French New Wave of Modern Italian cinema as embodied in Antonioni and Fellini(Cardinale in fact went back and forth between this film and 8 1/2, essentially in two separate solar systems). Yet Visconti's film could not be conceivable any other way. A film about the dying aristocracy, this film is also about the classical tradition embodied in that culture which is slowly disappearing and which Visconti, despite being a progressive, was a product of.
So THE LEOPARD is also self-reflexive about it's own style and mode of storytelling, yet the ending of the film is also vastly more different and more richer than that of the novel that it takes as a source. The novel written by a cynical aristocrat dilettante is a work of great emotions the chief being nostalgia for the old ways. This nostalgia is tossed out by Visconti, alongside its shameless misogyny. In the transaction the characters are richer and deeper than their literary forebears.
Visconti put his entire heart and soul into THE LEOPARD. You will never see widescreen and colour used as powerfully in all of cinema as it is used in this film. Light, colour, camera movement and the movement of the actors is choreographed in a single whole, the framing has a depth of field that is unparalleled in film history, comparable only to the works of Welles, Ophuls and Mizoguchi. This is a true spectacle - rich and grand, yet personal and intimate.
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