Notes on film: The Leopard

“Something had to change for everything to stay as it was.”

The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) is a historical epic of breathtaking scope and beauty. It is an acclaimed adaptation of the 1958 novel, by Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, about the unification of Italy in the late 19th century. This 1963 film adaptation is a highpoint in the later part of an illustrious career of the Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti, demonstrating his classical sense of aestheticism and modern approach to storytelling. Watching The Leopard is an absolute feast for the senses as Visconti’s camera captures all the detail and beauty in the Sicilian landscape and buildings that the film takes place in.

Like the main characters in the film, Visconti was born into Italian nobility. His aristocratic background allowed him to establish important connections within social and artistic circles, and in the late 1930s he went to Paris to work as the assistant of the acclaimed French director Jean Renoir. After World War II Visconti worked extensively as a director of not only film but opera and theatre as well. Visconti is a leading figure in what is known as the Italian Neorealist movement, which was a response to the fascist supported films of the 1930s that mimicked Hollywood-style escapism and were considered bland, irrelevant and conservative. Neorealism focused on stories of hardship among everyday people who were faced with a number of difficulties in the post World War II economy. Neorealist films were usually shot on location and often used non-professional actors to create a heightened sense of realism. Two defining Italian Neorealist films are Rome, Open City (Roma, città aperta, 1945) directed by Roberto Rossellini and The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di biciclette, 1948) directed by Vittorio De Sica. However in 1943 Visconti directed the film that is often regarded as the first Italian Neorealist film, Obsession (Ossessione) and although 1950 is generally considered as the end of Italy’s main period of Neorealism, Visconti’s 1960 film Rocco and His Brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli) is the last great film of this important cinematic movement.

Before making Rocco and His Brothers Visconti had made a significant departure from Neorealism with the sweeping historical drama Senso (1954). Senso featured colour photography, big name actors and elaborately detailed sets and costumes, and was a precursor to what was to come in The Leopard, which was the culmination of many aspects of Visconti’s career up until that point. His theatrical background and experience on Senso gave him the grand sense of theatricality and spectacle that so wonderfully defines The Leopard, while the mix of the personal and the political in the Neorealist films gave him the tools that he needed to depict the internal and external problems facing the aristocratic Sicilian family at the centre of the film. This was also to be Visconti’s most personal work, as the tale of an aging aristocrat who recognised the necessity for his social class to make way for the other classes and the next generation clearly struck a chord. The resulting film is extraordinary on many levels.

The Leopard features an astonishing international cast. Playing the lead character Prince Don Fabrizio Salina is American actor Burt Lancaster, whose classical Hollywood films included From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953) and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (John Sturges, 1957). As his much-favoured nephew Tancredi Falconeri, the hugely popular French actor Alain Delon was cast. Delon had already worked with Visconti on Rocco and His Brothers and would later frequently work with French thriller director Jean-Pierre Melville in films such as The Samourai (Le Samouraï, 1967). The very popular Italian actor Claudia Cardinale, who had also appeared in Rocco and His Brothers, was chosen to play Angelica Sedara. Cardinale would appear in later Visconti films as well as Federico Fellini’s masterpiece , which came out in the same year as The Leopard making 1963 a very significant year for Italian cinema.

The all-consuming visual style of The Leopard links it to a very classic approach to filmmaking while the episodic narrative marks it as a very modern film. A lot of attention is paid to the dynamics between large groups of people gathered together – the various religious services, formal dinners and of course the lavish ball, a much celebrated sequence that takes up nearly the last third of the film. Visconti is less interested in driving the story as he is in creating the atmosphere and energy of the time and place. Visconti takes advantage of the Sicilian landscape and architecture to ensure that there is not a single frame that is not bursting with beauty. The setting of The Leopard is not simply the background to the action but very much in the foreground. It is this command of visual aestheticism that contributes to the enduring legacy of The Leopard.

However, it would be a mistake to think that the story and character development are of secondary importance, as they are not. The political manoeuvring within Sicilian society during the unification of Italy in the late 19th century, where the aristocracy had to make room for the now powerful middle class, is explored at great length precisely because the film’s relaxed pace and long running time allows the various issues and debates to be played out. At the centre of the grand historical events is the Prince, a man of great integrity, intellect and standing. He represents the nobility who must let go of their privileged position. Although it is not apparent until the final ballroom sequence, the Prince has also resigned himself to his own mortality despite his strong attraction to Angelica. Nevertheless, the Prince does not take advantage of the situation and strongly encourages the marriage between her and his nephew, Tancredi Falconeri. In other words, the aging nobleman peacefully concedes to the younger generation and the middle classes both personally and politically.

Part of Visconti’s skill as a director is how much information he communicates to the audience without dialogue but by facial expressions and sideways glances. Appreciating the unspoken dynamics between the Prince, Angelica and Tancredi is the real key to appreciating The Leopard and the final interaction between the three on the ballroom floor is a triumph of visual storytelling. 

Originally appeared in the film notes for the Region 4 DVD box set A Beginner’s Guide to Cinema 2, released by Madman Entertainment

© Thomas Caldwell, 2008