The Leopard: a character study thin on political expediency and cynicism, and thick on glamour

Luchino Visconti, “Il Gattopardo / The Leopard” (1963)

A sumptuous film even by the glamorous standards of its time – and the 1960s did see a number of films that outdid one another in epic scope, technical details and casting – Visconti’s “The Leopard” is a snapshot of a dramatic period in Italy’s modern history, when for the first time in well over a thousand years the Italian peninsula became one country under one government. The narrative revolves around a noble Sicilian family and its political and social decline. Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster), scion of the princely Salina family, scents that the old ways of life are fading and that his family may pass into history unmourned and impoverished. He decides that his wayward nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) needs more than family connections and reputation to make his way in a new world that he himself doesn’t quite understand. The don’s hopes lie in Tancredi’s engagement and marriage to the beauteous Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), the daughter of a nouveau riche mayor, Don Calogero (Paolo Stoppa), who himself is of peasant stock. Much of the film hangs off this basic story structure of the two young people meeting and falling in love – much to the disgust of Don Fabrizio’s wife and the disappointment of their daughter Concetta who had hoped to marry Tancredi – and their courtship and engagement, and Angelica’s introduction into high society culminating in a banquet and an extended ballroom-dancing scene.

Filmed in and around Sicily, the movie boasts very beautiful and dramatic settings and often achieves a painterly look especially in scenes set in the rural outdoors. Much attention was paid to costuming and getting details of interiors right for the period in which the film is set. Visconti makes much of the contrasts between the lives of the old landed aristocracy in their palaces and of the common people dwelling in poverty and squalor. The film’s themes of mortality and decay are reflected in scenes inside the Salina family’s palace where there are empty rooms in states of ruin and faded glory, and in an early scene where the entire Salina family attends Mass and the camera pans over their faces: tired, grey-looking and almost mummified. There are scenes of fighting which can be spectacular and there is one brief scene of a hanged police spy.

The film works best though as a character study of a man who tries to maintain a foothold in a changing world with changing values by playing the system for what it’s worth and encouraging his nephew to do the same. At one point in the film, Don Fabrizio pressures the peasants on his estate into voting for a united Italy under King Victor Emanuele; at another point in the film, he refuses to serve in the Senate of the unified Italian government because of his beliefs about human nature and how it stubbornly clings to custom and tradition when there is change all around. Burt Lancaster does very well in the role of Don Fabrizio fighting to change history to be on his side – and losing because at the very moment his country most needs him, he turns away.  Alain Delon is less effective and a bit one-dimensional as Tancredi who is equally as slippery in his values: initially fighting with Garibaldi’s forces, later throwing in his lot with government forces and cheering at news that several of Garibaldi’s men have been executed by the new government troops. Through the characters of Don Fabrizio and Tancredi, the film suggests that clever individuals survive by guile and opportunism and as a result a society that evolves from the efforts of such people will lose something that uplifts humanity and culture, and end up morally impoverished. Cardinale does a creditable job playing Angelica who displays intelligence and insight as well as a combination of refinement and some vulgarity. Stoppa provides plenty of light relief as Don Calogero who realises that his daughter’s impending marriage into the aristocracy will bring him great renown as well as catapult up the social ladder and accordingly adopts airs and graces.

The pivotal scenes of the film in which Don Fabrizio confronts his mortality and his failure as a prince, head of a noble family and a man of supposed morality and integrity come in the film’s last hour when he is invited to join the new Italian government (and which invitation he refuses) and during the ballroom scenes where, lonely and depressed, he finds the gay and superficial chatter not at all to his liking. He seems drawn to Angelica (and she to him) and the scene in which they dance the mazurka together is as close as they get to sparking off an affair. After the ball ends, Don Fabrizio decides to return home on foot alone and he passes into a dark passageway in a village as if Death is already beckoning him.

It is a pity that at this point the movie ends whereas the original novel continues into a distant future in which Don Fabrizio lives another 20 years after the ball, his daughter Concetta becomes an embittered spinster and Tancredi and Angelica’s marriage, for which Don Fabrizio had high hopes, ends up as sour and estranged as Don Fabrizio’s own marriage did. It turns out that Tancredi still secretly loves Concetta but an incident between them just after they first meet Angelica – and which is included in the film in the conversation Tancredi has with Angelica at the dinner table – drove the two cousins apart forever.

The movie does assume that viewers have a good knowledge of Italian history as characters discuss the general political situation of the time and the name of Garibaldi is bandied about quite a lot. The culture of 19th century Sicily with its heavy emphasis on religious devotion may seem alien to a generation of viewers for whom Catholicism and religious worship hardly figure in their lives even on Sundays.

For its length, the plot and its themes are stretched quite thin and the politics that inform the plot are treated in a fragmented and superficial way. The film tends to be rather too self-indulgent and a little too in love with the Sicilian landscapes, rustic villages and palaces, and the lives of the upper class during the 19th century. The banquet scenes especially could have been tightened up further with more time given over to Don Fabrizio’s brooding as he returns home. Perhaps the film works best as a companion piece to the original novel (which I confess I haven’t yet read) to highlight its concerns.



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