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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
According to Fulco della Verdura, director Luchino Visconti's close friend, Visconti's affection for Alain Delon initially caused some favoritism. "He was the only actor to have a dressing room; poor Burt Lancaster stood around for hours waiting." See more »
During one of the long shots of the journey to Donnafugata, a blur crosses the screen near the center, apparently caused by a fly crawling over the lens. See more »
it's one of Visconti's most ambitious and gorgeous films
What I found most fascinating, though this would exclude the character of Fabrizio Salina (played dead-on by Burt Lancaster) and the images captured time and time again, is that The Leopard is practically a 180 from Visconti's breakthroughs. Think of Ossessione and La Terra Trema and any film buff will think of neo-realism, the plight of the under-valued, the emerging form of power in the simplest stories, the most heartbreaking images. By the time it came around to the Leopard, Visconti was still making personal movies, but here with the Leopard instead of it being a grainy black and white, full screen film set in the present and detailing the lower classes in their communities, it's a sumptuous widescreen technicolor feat telling the story of aristocracy in 1860 Italy. But, luckily, Visconti doesn't disappoint- this is a rich film, one that I may not have been able to penetrate on the first viewing, and I don't know how many viewings it will take me to do so.
The lead character, a Count (Lancaster), has to face up with the changing times- not only is an end coming to a ruling class that has been more or less on rules for about 2500 years, his nephew Tancredi (played in a wonderful early performance by Alain Deleon) is in love with a fellow Don, Calogero's (Stoppa, genuinely slimy and interesting aristocrat) daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale, who makes Catherine Zeta Jones seem like an every-girl in the looks and persona department). A revolution seems on the way, but it is ceased, and meanwhile the Prince sees that things are changing, but as one quotes, "things will stay the same".
The Leopard is many things- philosophical treatise on the nature of the ruling class with all that is to offer when looking down on the 'little people'; classic, novel-type love story with characters not going into the realm of soap; it's a feast for the eyes and the ears- Giusseppe Rotuno and Nino Rota turn in five of their greatest pieces of work respectively (even when a character may be talking and it may not be terribly interesting, looking at the shots that unfold is not deterring in the least). Although the drama that unfolds at times isn't as compelling as in Visconti's neo-realist efforts, and the fact that this is in another country going back nearly a hundred and fifty years (the distance as opposed to recognizability of the family in the fishing village of La Terra Trema), it is a treat to see.
And, indeed, after seeing it on a big screen (a rare occasion, thanks to the Film Forum theater in New York), it perhaps one of the finest widescreen films to come out of Italy in the past fifty years. A masterful sequence is to behold as well- the ballroom sequence, where the tones are instinctively precise. Bottom line, this is (one of) the ultimate aristocrat-turned-Marxist take(s) on 19th century Italy and Sicily.
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