Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, a great film focused on Sicilian aristocracy and cultural change

By Daniel Garrett

The Leopard
Directed by Luchino Visconti
Screenplay by Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile,
and Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, and Visconti
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale
Titanus/Twentieth Century Fox, 1963

There are some qualities for which there are no substitutes: energy, kindness, wisdom. Yet, many of us consider wealth and power of more importance. Of course, what is most significant about wealth and power are what they allow the individual—they make possible choices and opportunities that have nothing to do with wealth and power. It is easier to pursue beauty, knowledge, love, and spiritual peace when you have wealth and power, as there are fewer distractions and obstructions when you can leave behind the struggles for survival and respect. Watching Luchino Visconti’s masterwork The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), one is introduced to a great patriarch and his family, whose family crest contains a leopard, and one sees the great estates full of valuable art, furnishings, and decorations, things in which the most excellent craft and thought have been invested generation after generation, and the family’s entertainments—reading, games, hunting, dance, and love. Burt Lancaster is the patriarch, Don Fabrizio Corbera, the prince of Salina, and his way of life is threatened by revolutionary change: the struggle to unify Italy, and the rising commercial middle class, are at his door. There are predictions that the aristocracy will lose its status, the prominence of its values, and possibly its lands, and that the church may lose as much too.

An aristocrat engaged by the arts, including opera, painting, and literature, the brilliant, demanding, and extravagant film director Luchino Visconti (1906-1976), was one of the great filmmakers of his time; and he made Ossessione (1942), Senso (1954), and Death in Venice (1971). Visconti, once a horse-breeder, fashion follower (and lover of Coco Chanel), and colleague of Jean Renoir, was an antecedent to filmmakers such as Bernardo Bertolucci, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. Luchino Visconti was not merely a lover of beauty, male and female, but a lover and creator of beauty of differing kinds. For his film The Leopard, produced by Goffredo Lombardo, Visconti collaborated with art director Mario Garbuglia, costumer Piero Tosi, cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, composer Nino Rota, and editor Mario Sarandrei; and each scene has the richness of a great painting—the film is not one masterpiece but many. Some films merely take place in a country or culture; whereas the most significant works, such as The Leopard, are works often about a country and a culture. Inspired by a posthumously published mid-twentieth century novel by the aristocrat Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the film was produced with sumptuous detail at great expense. The inspiring novel was informed by the life of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s great-grandfather, and by the author’s own disappointments, and possibly influenced by the literature of Stendhal, Balzac, and Proust; and there is a lot of history beneath the activity in Visconti’s film: Italy had not been unified since the fall of the Roman empire. Italian regions were dominated by France and Austria, as well as the pope, with different areas having their own kings; and there were social movements for uniting under one king, and for constitutional democracy. The church began some reforms, including lay representation in government, followed by other reforms in Tuscany and Piedmont. Rebellion was encouraged, not satiated, by reforms; and in 1848 a constitution and parliament were established in Sicily, with revolt occurring elsewhere. Yet, feudal conditions remained. Victor Emmanuel II, on the throne of Sardinia, was committed to Italian independence and a liberal constitution. There was a resurgence of the movements for political change: Palermo rebelled in 1860 against Francis II, successor to King Ferdinand, the king of the two Sicilies; and Garibaldi and his forces fought for nearly three months before taking Sicily. Victor Emmanuel II was named king of Italy in 1861, with Garibaldi attempting to fight both king and pope. Rome became the capital of a unified Italy in July 1871, under Victor Emmanuel II, who was succeeded by his son in 1878.

In Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, a great marriage of literature and pictorial art, the prince, Don Fabrizio Corbera (Burt Lancaster, who studied Italian aristocrats, including Visconti, and is dubbed by an aristocratic Sicilian voice), seems genuinely noble: the prince is distinguished by his conscientious, strong, and privileged character, by the depth and range of his vision, anticipating and planning for what his family will need, understanding how changing times will affect them all, and by his aesthetic and moral heritage, wealth, and social influence. Don Fabrizio Corbera, has a favorite nephew, the son of his sister, the handsome, charming and brave Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), whom the prince wants to help get on in the world. Tancredi first joins the revolutionaries, with a little money from his uncle, fighting under the bearded, long-haired Garibaldi, though not seen here, a guerilla leader with a great appeal to the young; and seeing the limits of that effort Tancredi becomes a soldier for the king. Tancredi Falconeri is a young man on the make. He has won the attention and love of the prince’s daughter, his cousin, but the prince himself thinks his daughter Concetta too shy to be of political use to the young man—and then the prince and Tancredi see the grown-up Angelica, the daughter of the ambitious, efficient but vulgar Donnafugata mayor, Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), once the playmate of Concetta, now a beautiful, sensual, though sometimes vulgar young woman (Claudia Cardinale). Tancredi and Angelica are drawn to each other; and their clothed embrace is as hot and intimate as sex. Will they have fire and flames for a year, and ashes for thirty? The prince blesses the engagement, liking the girl and appreciating the money and land that she will enter the marriage with. The vulgar father and daughter threaten the prince’s aesthetic and moral values, but they can ensure his private comforts and give his family new vital blood. The vulgarity of the father and daughter is that they accept the facts of money and sex, and are not afraid to speak or hear of them in any company. The prince, with his inherited wealth, with his modest, whiny but respectable wife and his voluptuous mistress, can afford silence. The course of his life has been settled, while the bourgeois, grasping father and daughter are still moving toward their ambitions, their fulfillments, their destinies. The prince can see them as enemies or friends and he chooses the latter. Visconti’s film The Leopard allows us to see that the prince has been a custodian of a heritage of value.

At the time of the American release of The Leopard, the film critic Pauline Kael remarked that the film made by Visconti, an aristocrat and a critic of his class, a film focused on a figure of stature, provides a view of the aristocracy from the inside, a perspective of consciousness, feeling, and style, and that the observer feels as if the prince’s grace is part of his position, inspiring sympathy for his values. In that version of the film, somewhat shorter than the Italian one, Burt Lancaster speaks in his own voice, with an American tone—direct, rough. What the English language version gains in immediacy, it loses in mystique, the Italian authenticity. After the Italian film was restored and shown in America again, in the Washington Post Desson Thomson said the film was from a time “when epics looked like epics” and that “the movie all but weeps with a sense of emotional loss” (February 11, 2005). Its scenes of courtesy and discipline, family prayer, battle, travel, romance, philosophical conversation, feasting, and ballroom dancing do indicate a grand world that exists no longer, a world of meaning that has found its end. In a response to the film, both critical and sensitive, writer Joanne Laurier, in a piece comparing The Leopard to I am Love, notes “a remarkable scene in which Visconti uses mirrors to highlight a historic (and generational) transformation. When Tancredi enters the room, his face fills the mirror Fabrizio is using to shave, as if he is pushing his uncle out of the way” (World Socialist Web Site, July 27, 2010). It is an interesting observation, although Tancredi’s replacement of his uncle in the mirror suggests another connection—that the older man sees himself in the young man. The two admire each other. However, the nephew’s ambition and pragmatism will take on a brutal edge, the self-deception and moral compromise for which others must be sacrificed; something that his cousin Concetta, but not fiancée Angelica, will recognize. Joanne Laurier draws attention to how the settings and their detail—in landscape, home, church, and office—expand and express the consciousness, the themes, of the film, unlike latter films, such as I am Love, that seem more narrowly concerned with individual psychology and sexuality. Laurier has an interest in the working people whose concerns remain mostly a mystery in The Leopard—although early in the film we see ordinary women and men chase and hang a town’s mayor; and later the prince’s family priest tries to explain the differences between the rich and the poor.

The prince of Salina, Don Fabrizio Corbera (Lancaster), is offered a part in the new government, as a senator, and he refuses, identifying himself as not wholly of the old order or the new; and, an honest man of privilege, the prince sees himself as too good and impolitic for the compromises of government. Finally, he does not believe in fundamental change: he sees Sicily as a colony of an asleep people, cruel, violent, the bearer of the culture of others, with a desire for death, oblivion, voluptuous immobility, a people whose intoxicating vanity is stronger than the look and smell of misery. In the great rooms of an immense estate is held a long lavish ball, at which Angelica is allowed to make her society debut and consecrate her position through a dance with the prince, there, where one does not have to told that many must be poor to allow a few such wealth, the prince hears and sees the chatter and movement of a group of girls as akin to that of monkeys. Their breeding and money have not made them better people. The prince is too honest, too philosophical, too genuinely aristocratic, for official politics: he has allowed a certain amount of change into his family, but does not change his own role—he refuses compromise and accepts defeat. He anticipates his own death.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.

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