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The Leopard: The Criterion Collection

Sicily's aristocratic ruling class struggles with and finally accedes pragmatically to a gradual shifting of the island's social order in Lucino Visconti's 1963 The Leopard; yet, for all the blood shed on the field of battle and the concurrent political maneuverings, it's the simple, breathtaking entrance of a stunningly beautiful woman that truly signals the end of an era. When that woman is played by Claudia Cardinale, and her arrival is scored by the incomparable Nino Rota, the effect is cataclysmically sensual in the most indelibly cinematic sense, accompanied by push-ins on the countenances of nearly every man in the room, clearly motivated by stirrings somewhat south of the neck. "This," one sighs, "is what movies can do!" Segueing drastically from the working class squalor of the conscientious Rocco and His Brothers to a refined world of entitlement, Visconti cast off most perceptible vestiges of his former neo-realist aesthetic in order to realize a film as vibrant as the Technicolor Senso, but far more majestic in its brash use of scope. The Leopard is a picture of Fordian landscapes made grimily tactile through the sweat and dust coating the actors tanned visages and finely tailored costumes, presaging the aesthetic of the looming Spaghetti Western phenomenon. It's the stylistic piece de resistance in Visconti's oeuvre, while thematically it's an honest and unashamedly fond elegy for a bygone rarified universe that appears strikingly at odds with the Marxist concerns of Rocco and La Terra Trema. Though emblematic of a possible ideological hypocrisy, the born-into-privilege Visconti was perfectly suited to chronicling this old order's passing. Even after his political conversion to socialism, Visconti continued to live a life of Epicurean pursuits, maintaining a traveling entourage of friends with whom he shared his taste for wild extravagance. In other words, the director obviously identified to a certain extent with his film's protagonist, Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, sensationally embodied by an ever-athletic Burt Lancaster, whose powerful movie-star presence was an ideal vehicle through which to convey the character's outsized impact on those who come into his orbit. The Criterion Collection presents The Leopard in a spectacularly restored anamorphic transfer (2.21:1) that was supervised by Rotunno. The only imperfections are those incurred on location; most amusingly (and appropriately), a fly scampering about the lens in two scenes. The audio is on a Dolby Digital 1.0 track, and it's as crisp as can be expected. Extras on this superlative three-disc set include a feature-length commentary from film scholar Peter Cowie, the brand-new documentary A Dying Breed: The Making of The Leopard (61 min.) featuring interviews with the director's surviving collaborators, a discussion with Titanus producer Goffredo Lombardo (19 min.), an interview with Italian history professor Millicent Marcus about the history behind The Leopard, stills, Italian newsreels, the Italian trailer, and two American trailers. Also on board is the 161-minute American cut of the film, though one should not expect the same exceptional picture and sound. Three-DVD keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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