The Prince of Salina, a noble aristocrat of impeccable integrity, tries to preserve his family and class amid the tumultuous social upheavals of 1860s Sicily.The Prince of Salina, a noble aristocrat of impeccable integrity, tries to preserve his family and class amid the tumultuous social upheavals of 1860s Sicily.The Prince of Salina, a noble aristocrat of impeccable integrity, tries to preserve his family and class amid the tumultuous social upheavals of 1860s Sicily.
The action takes place in the Sicily of the early 1860s. The "leopard" of the title is Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, the head of an ancient and illustrious aristocratic family. This is, however, a time of change, because the "Risorgimento", the struggle to unite the network of petty states which made up Italy into a single kingdom, has begun. Early in the story the armies of Francis II of the Two Sicilies are defeated by the pro-unification "redshirts" of Giuseppe Garibaldi, leading the way to the incorporation of the island into the new state.
Lampedusa, himself a Sicilian aristocrat, took a somewhat cynical view of the Risorgimento, even though these events are one of the defining episodes of Italian patriotism. Fabrizio sees the events of 1860/61 as marking the decline of traditional aristocratic values and the rise of a corrupt, materialistic bourgeoisie. The new Italy claims to be a democracy, but this claim is shown to be a hollow one when the new rulers organise a rigged plebiscite to approve the incorporation of Sicily into the new unified Italy. (In Fabrizio's home town 512 citizens out of 515 supposedly vote in favour, with three abstentions and no votes against, a landslide of North Korean proportions). Fabrizio is offered the position of a Senator in the new state, but contemptuously rejects it.
The main representative of the rising bourgeoisie is Don Calogero Sedara, a wealthy, self-made businessman. Like many "new money" men throughout the ages, Sedara longs for social acceptance by the "old money" nobility, and is desperate to engineer the marriage of his beautiful daughter Angelica to Fabrizio's nephew Tancredi. Although Fabrizio was hoping that Tancredi would marry his own daughter, Concetta, he reluctantly gives his consent, knowing that Tancredi (whose own family are aristocratic but not particularly wealthy is not only smitten with Angelica's good looks but also in need of her father's money.
The novel has always been known in English as "The Leopard" (and in French as "Le Guépard"), even though its Italian title "Il Gattopardo" refers not to the leopard (that would be "Il Leopardo") but to two smaller members of the cat family, either the serval (gattopardo africano) or the ocelot (gattopardo americano). Although I can see why the change was made- "The Serval" would mean little to English-speaking audiences unless they were expert in zoology- Lampedusa's title strikes me as somehow more appropriate. By the end of the film Fabrizio seems a diminished figure, no longer the biggest cat in the jungle.
When first released in 1963, the film was a success in Italy and France but not in America, where it was released in an English-dubbed version, cut down to 161 minutes, considerably shorter than Luchino Visconti's 185-minute "director's cut". I have never seen the English-language version, so my comments below are of necessity based upon Visconti's cut. Even if Lancaster did not speak the words we hear in the Italian version, he nevertheless dominates the picture by his very presence. At first he seems a towering figure, a pillar of tradition and aristocratic values, but it eventually becomes clear that the forces of historic change are too strong for him, and if he still remains standing at the end he does so like a pillar which remains upright when the structure it once supported has fallen into ruins around it.
"The Leopard" is an early example of what has become known as "heritage cinema" and, although that genre is mostly associated with Britain it predates what I normally think of as the first modern British example, Schlesinger's "Far from the Madding Crowd", by several years. It is not only a grand epic, very visually striking and making good use of the landscapes and architecture of Sicily and of the costumes of its period, but also a moving meditation upon the forces of history and the process of change. A fine drama. 8/10
- Jun 10, 2019