by Pauline Kael
It’s deeply satisfying to see, finally, Luchino Visconti’s magnificent 1963 film The Leopard in Italian, with subtitles, and at its full length—three hours and five minutes. It had been cut to two hours and forty-one minutes when it opened in this country, in a dubbed-into-English version that didn’t always seem in sync, and with the color brightened in highly variable and disorienting ways. Now the movie has its full shape, and it couldn’t have arrived at a better time. The new movies—especially the new American movies—have reached a low, low point. And here is a work of a type we rarely see anymore—a sweeping popular epic, with obvious similarities to Gone with the Wind. Set in Sicily, beginning in 1860, it’s Gone with the Wind with sensibility—an almost Chekhovian sensibility. It doesn’t have the active central characters that the American epic has; there’s no Scarlett or Rhett. But it has a hero on a grand scale—Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, played superlatively well by Burt Lancaster. And it’s so much better at doing the kind of things that Gone with the Wind did—showing you how historical events affect the lives of the privileged classes—that it can make you feel a little embarrassed for Hollywood. Gone mth the Wind is, of course, a terrific piece of entertainment; The Leopard is so beautifully felt that it calls up a whole culture. It casts an intelligent spell—intelligent and rapturous.
The Visconti epic is based on the posthumously published, bestselling novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa—an impoverished Sicilian prince, like his hero. (The Lampedusa coat of arms bore a leopard.) The movie isn’t what we normally call “novelistic,” though; everything comes to us physically. Visconti suggests Don Fabrizio’s thoughts and feelings by the sweep and texture of his life. The fabrics, the medalladen military uniforms, the dark, heavy furniture, the huge palaces, with their terraces and broad marble staircases, and the arid, harsh landscapes they’re set in are all sensualized—made tactile. Burt Lancaster has always been a distinctively physical actor, and this is a supremely physical role. We know the Prince by his noble bearing and the assurance of his gestures—they’re never wasteful. He’s at ease with authority; you can believe that he’s the result of centuries of aristocratic breeding. There’s grandeur in the performance, which Lancaster has acknowledged he modelled on Visconti himself (who, though not a Sicilian, was a count whose family titles were among the oldest and most noble in Europe). It is not merely that the Prince is in tune with his surroundings. They have formed each other: he and the Salina country palazzo basking in the yellow light outside Palermo are one.
The Prince’s estates have dwindled, money is running low, but he keeps up the family traditions. He’s not a romantic—he’s a realist. He’ll protect aristocratic values for as long as he can, and he’ll do his best to protect the future of the Salina family—his wife and seven children, his nephew—and the household priest and all the other attendants. He bends to the times only as much as he needs to. In 1860, Italy was in the middle of a revolution. Garibaldi and his followers—the Redshirts— were trying to unify Italy and free the south and Sicily from Bourbon rule. The Prince’s favorite nephew, the spirited, gallant Tancredi (Alain Delon), goes off to join Garibaldi; he goes with the Prince’s blessing and a small bag of his gold—the Prince understands that the Bourbons will fall. He’s a man with few illusions, a man of sense who suffers fools all the time and tries to cushion his impatience. When Garibaldi lands on Sicily with an army of about a thousand men, and there are skirmishes in the streets of Palermo, the Prince’s neurasthenic wife (Rina Morelli) becomes hysterically frightened—she’s a whimperer—and he, recognizing that they may be in danger, takes her and their brood to safety at the family holdings across the island in Donnafugata. Along the way, the servants lay out a picnic—they spread a vast white linen cloth, and dish after dish, while the grooms take care of the horses. (Corot should have been invited.) At Donnafugata, the Prince leads the procession of his people, weary, and covered with dust from the road, into the cathedral. Seated in the Salina family pews, they’re like corpses—petrified, dead-wood figures.
The movie is about the betrayal of Garibaldi’s democratic revolution, and about the wiliness of opportunists like Tancredi. (“Black and slim as an adder’’ was how Lampedusa described him.) Tancredi makes his reputation as a heroic fighter while he’s an officer with Garibaldi’s Redshirts, but as soon as power shifts to the Mafia-dominated, middle-class landgrabbers, he changes into the uniform of the new king—their king, Victor Emmanuel II, from the House of Savoy. He doesn’t so much as blink when he hears the gunshots that mark the execution of the last of Garibaldi’s loyal troops. The young Delon is perhaps too airy for the role. With his even features, small teeth, and smooth cheeks, he’s a very pretty art object, perfectly carved. He’d make a fine, spry figure in an operetta, but he doesn’t have the excitement or force to give Tancredi’s actions the weight they might have had. (This Tancredi is as shallow as that other opportunist—Scarlett.) But the film is essentially about the Prince himself—the aging Leopard—and how he reacts to the social changes.
Lancaster provides the film’s center of consciousness. We see everything that happens through Visconti’s eyes, of course, but we feel we’re seeing it through the Prince’s eyes. We couldn’t be any closer to him if we were inside his skin—in a way, we are. We see what he sees, feel what he feels; we know what’s in his mind. He’s fond of—and a little envious of—Tancredi, with his youth and verve. The Prince—he’s only forty-five, but forty-five was a ripe age in the mid-nineteenth century—has perceived what the result of the revolution will be: the most ruthless grabbers will come out on top. There’s a despicable specimen of the breed close at hand—the rich and powerful mayor of Donnafugata, Don Calogero (Paolo Stoppa), who is eager to climb into society. The Prince has a daughter who is in love with Tancredi, but the Prince understands that this daughter—prim and repressed, like his wife—is too overprotected and overbred to be the wife Tancredi needs for the important public career he’s going after. And Tancredi, who has nothing but his princely title and his rakish charm, requires a wife who will bring him a fortune. And so when Tancredi is smitten by Don Calogero’s poised and strikingly sensual daughter, Angelica (the lush young Claudia Cardinal, doing a bit too much lip-licking), the Prince arranges the match. (All this is presented very convincingly, and it’s probably silly to quibble with a masterpiece, yet I doubt if a warmhearted father—and especially one sensually deprived in his relationship with his wife—would be so free of illusions about his daughter. And it seemed to me that he was more cut off from his children—one of the striplings is played by the very young Pierre Clementi, who has the face of a passionflower—than a man of his temperament would be, whatever his rank.)
Lighted by the justly celebrated cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, the movie is full of marvellous, fluid set-piece sequences: the dashing Tancredi’s goodbyes to the Salina family when he goes off to join Garibaldi; the picnic; the church sequence. The original Italian prints may have had deeper brown tones and more lustrous golds—some of the scenes have a drained-out look—but there’s always detail to exult in. Each time the Salina family assembles for Mass or for dinner, it’s a big gathering. Some of the smaller, less opulent sequences are ongoing political arguments, like the ironic dialogue between the Prince and the timid worrywart family priest (Romolo Valli), or between the Prince and a family retainer who is his hunting companion (Serge Reggiani, overacting). This poverty-stricken snob, who’s loyal to the Bourbons, is shocked that the Prince would approve of his nephew’s marrying a girl whose mother is “an illiterate animal.” The political issues that the film deals with are, of course, simplified, but they’re presented with considerable cogency, and they’re very enjoyable. Of the smaller sequences, perhaps the most dazzling is the conversation between the Prince and a petite, intelligent professorial gentleman (Leslie French) who has come with the official request that he stand for election to the Senate. (Victor Emmanuel II is a constitutional monarch.) Here, the Leopard—refusing the offer —shows his full pride. It’s the most literary passage in the movie; it’s the rationale of the script: the Prince explains the Sicilian arrogance and torpor, and how he and the land are intertwined. I doubt if any other director has got by even halfway with a fancy dialogue of this kind, yet it’s stunningly successful here. Lancaster has held his energy in check through most of the performance; now he comes out blazing, and he’s completely controlled. He has a wild, tragicomic scene, too, when the weasel-eyed Don Calogero comes to discuss Tancredi’s proposal to his daughter. The sickened Prince listens to him, and then, in a startling move, picks up the little weasel, plants a quick, ceremonial kiss on each cheek to welcome him into the family, and plunks him down. It happens so fast we barely have time to laugh. Don Calogero’s greed shines forth then in the satisfaction with which he enumerates each item of the dowry he will bestow upon Tancredi; it’s as if he expected the Prince to cry “Hosanna!” for each acre, each piece of gold.
Probably the movie seems as intense as it does because the action isn’t dispersed among several groups of characters, the way it usually is in an epic. We stay with the Prince almost all the time. Except for the fighting in the streets, there’s only one major sequence that he isn’t in —an episode in which Tancredi and Angelica wander about in unused parts of the rambling Salina palace in Donnafugata. The Prince’s absence may not be the reason, but this episode doesn’t seem to have any purpose or focal point, and it’s also the only time the film’s tempo seems off. Whenever the Prince is onscreen—whether in his study, where the telescopes indicate his interest in astronomy, or in the town hall, controlling his distaste while drinking a glass of cheap wine that Don Calogero has handed him—we’re held, because we’re always learning new things about him. And in the concluding hour, at the Ponteleone Ball—certainly the finest hour of film that Visconti ever shot (and the most influential, as The Godfather and The Deer Hunter testify)—it all comes together. At this ball, the Salinas introduce Angelica to society—to all the many Sicilian princes and aristocrats. Visconti’s triumph here is that the ball serves the same function as the Prince’s interior monologue in the novel: throughout this sequence, in which the Prince relives his life, experiences regret, and accepts the dying of his class and his own death, we feel we’re inside the mind of the Leopard saying farewell to life.
Everything we’ve seen earlier, we now realize, was leading to this splendid ball, which marks the aristocrats’ acceptance of the parvenus who are taking over their wealth and power. (The poor will stay at the bottom, and—in the Prince’s view, at least—will be worse off than before; the new ruling class will not be bound by the tradition of noblesse oblige.) The Prince, alone by choice, wanders from one mammoth ballroom to the next, observing all these people he knows. Tancredi and Angelica have their first dance, and the Nino Rota score gives way to a lilting waltz by Verdi, which had been discovered just before the film was shot; Visconti was giving it its first public performance, and a piece of music may never have been showcased more lavishly. Visconti (and perhaps his helpers) certainly knew how to stage dance sequences. (The movie was edited in a month, yet the rhythmic movement of the whole film is intoxicatingly smooth.) Soon the crowded rooms are stifling and, with the women fluttering their fans, look like cages of moths. The Prince, strolling away from these overheated rooms, sees a bevy of adolescent girls in their ruffles jumping up and down on a bed while chattering and screaming in delight—overbred, chalky-faced girls, like his daughters, all excited. In a room where people are seated at tables feasting, he glances in revulsion at a colonel covered with medals who is boasting of his actions against Garibaldi’s men. He begins to feel fatigued—flushed and ill. He goes into the library, pours himself a glass of water, and stares at a big oil—a copy of a Greuze deathbed scene.
It’s there, in front of the painting, that Tancredi and Angelica find him. She wants the Prince to dance with her, and as she pleads with him their bodies are very close, and for a few seconds the emotions he has been feeling change into something close to lust. He envies Tancredi for marrying for different reasons from his own; he envies Tancredi for Angelica’s full-blown beauty, her heartiness, her coarseness. He escorts her to the big ballroom, and they waltz together. It’s Angelica’s moment of triumph: he is publicly welcoming her into his family. He is straight-backed and formal while they dance, but his thoughts are chaotic. He experiences acute regret for the sensual partnership he never had with his wife, and a nostalgia for the animal vitality of his youth. His intimations of his own mortality are fierce. After returning the shrewd, happy Angelica to Tancredi, he goes to a special small room to freshen up. Coming out, he sees into an anteroom—the floor is covered with chamber pots that need emptying. Eventually, the ball draws to a close, and people begin to leave, but a batch of young diehard dancers are still going strong: they’re hopping and whirling about to livelier music now that the older people have left the floor. The Prince arranges for his family to be taken home, explaining that he will walk. When he passes down the narrow streets, he’s an old man. The compromises he has had to make have more than sickened him—they’ve aged him. His vision of the jackals and sheep who are replacing the leopards and lions ages him even more. He is emotionally isolated from his wife and children; he no longer feels any affection for the sly-faced Tancredi. He’s alone.
The Leopard is the only film I can think of that’s about the aristocracy from the inside. Visconti, the Marxist count, is both pitiless and loving. His view from the inside is not very different from that of Max Ophuls in The Earrings of Madame de… —which was made from the outside (though it was based on the short novel by the aristocratic Louise de Vilmorin). Ophuls’ imagination took him where Visconti’s lineage (and imagination) had brought him, and he gave us a portrait of a French aristocrat by Charles Boyer which had similarities to Lancaster’s performance. But we weren’t taken inside that French aristocrat’s value system with anything like the robust fullness of our involvement with Lancaster’s Leopard. If it weren’t for the Prince’s wiry, strong, dark-red hair and his magisterial physique—his vigor—I doubt if we’d feel the same melancholy at the death of his class. The film makes us feel that his grace is part of his position. We’re brought to respect values that are almost totally foreign to our society. That’s not a small thing for a movie to accomplish.
The New Yorker, September 19, 1983