The Leopard: The Criterion Collection
Home Vision Entertainment
Starring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale,
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Review by Clarence Beaks
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, allegedly presided over by his mentor, Jean Renoir, 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.
Lancaster was also a desirable selling point to American audiences, a market undoubtedly coveted by a director known for casting notable Hollywood actors in his international productions. Unfortunately, when the time came for 20th Century Fox to distribute the picture domestically, they lopped off over 20 minutes from Visconti's version, eliding what they believed to be Italian minutiae that would bore American filmgoers. The result, while hardly unwatchable, was still a crass truncating of Visconti's meticulously constructed vision, further muddling his already ambiguous themes, and destroying the musical rhythm of his editing, which is particularly critical in the climactic ballroom set piece. For close to two decades, Visconti's cut was all but inaccessible to American audiences until it was finally restored in the early 1980s, revealing a challenging, undeniable masterpiece a rich summation of Visconti's conflicting liberal social conscious and sentimental blue bloodedness.
* * *
Adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa highly acclaimed novel by Visconti and no fewer than four co-scenarists, The Leopard is the epic saga of Prince Salina's slow fade from aristocratic prominence set against and hastened by the reunification of Sicily after beating back Austrian occupiers and their Bourbon sympathizers in the north. The Prince and his family have generally been able to avoid the raging conflict by remaining ensconced on their palatial estate where they are tended to by various workers, servants, and a live-in priest, the companionable Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli). But the beckoning glory of the battlefield finally proves irresistible to Salina's nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), who joins up with Giribaldi's red-shirt guerillas. Though Giribaldi represents a bold move in a politically progressive and, therefore, disadvantageous direction for Salina, he pragmatically recognizes the value in siding with the soon-to-be victorious elements; thus, Tancredi enlists with his uncle's blessing.
Wisely understanding the necessity of first-act spectacle to draw his audience into his otherwise stately paced picture, Visconti stages a sensational piece of urban warfare composed largely in long shots and overhead angles, enabling the viewer distance through which one might gain a sense of war's cruel and random grandeur. Tancredi is wounded during the skirmish, though not badly; however, when he returns home, his brave service proves valuable to moving the family past red-shirt roadblocks as they travel through sweltering heat to their ludicrously enormous mansion in Donnafugata. There's already a palpable feeling of change in the air at Donnafugata, but the family still receives their expected and quite extravagant welcome, replete with a special church service.
As the family luxuriates in their dusty, dilapidated paradise, the question of Concetta's, Salina's daughter, possible betrothal to Tancredi arises. Though there is some degree of romance burgeoning between the two, Salina is concerned that the timid and unrefined Concetta, whom he warmly describes to Pirrone as if she were the family dog, is inadequate for the ambitious Tancredi. Indeed, there is no woman even remotely in the running until the family is reintroduced to the suddenly, and smolderingly, mature daughter of the gauche Don Calogero, Angelica (Cardinale). Spellbindingly gorgeous, if a touch brusque, Salina is forced to concede that Angelica, bolstered by her father's nouveau riche fortune (much of which is due to Salina), represents the most fiscally agreeable match for Tancredi. After easily weathering the disapproval of his family and the fiery Don Ciccio (Serge Reggiani), the rest of the film proceeds as the Prince's inexorable march to irrelevance and, essentially, death.
* * *
Key to assessing The Leopard is deciding how favorably one should view the Prince, a narcissistic man who appears to have little tangible affection for his immediate family, browbeats his spiritual adviser for if not outright approval, then grudging acceptance of his sins (circumventing the inconvenience of confession), and cares not a whit about the roiling insurgency outside of how it happens to influence his financial or social standing. By any enlightened, modern-day standard, he is not a good man. The problem with Salina is that, as performed by Lancaster, he's a suavely persuasive little devil a relic of a cad so audacious, he uses Pirrone as cover for his illicit trysts. Lancaster and Visconti certainly make it easy on the audience, going light on Princess Maria's (Rina Morelli) characterization so one doesn't too weightily lament her sad fate as the family's asexual mascot of a matriarch. Maria's most human moment finds her whimpering in bed after discovering Tancredi's betrayal of Concetta, which, unbeknownst to her, has been sanctioned by Salina. She is indignant, but also trapped; the Prince cannot be defied on any decision, no matter how cruel or heartbreaking. After redressing her, the Prince gruffly kisses her on the forehead, and throws the sheets up over his head as he turns away from her. Though there is a human figure beside her, the implication is chilling: Maria is not only alone in the world, she's absolutely useless, and will be until her death.
It's difficult, then, taking into account how miserable he's made everyone around him, to invest emotionally in Salina's careful management of his own demise, which, as Rota's sentimental score seems to suggest, is meant to grow increasingly poignant with each move toward eventual endgame. Such dark moral shadings, particularly the unchallenged emotional isolation of women, are a clear influence on the future work of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, the latter of whom has not been shy in listing the many motifs he's lifted from Visconti. But as with the protagonists in The Godfather and Goodfellas, the viewer makes almost unthinkable accommodations in order to empathize with Salina, which is the dual triumph of the director and his star. It helps, of course, that Salina does not appear given to physical abuse or murder as the gangsters in those later films. There's also the Prince's whimsical fascination with astronomy, which is endearing even though it's tied up in his helpless yearning for oblivion.
Most of all, Salina wins sympathy through his affectionately adversarial relationship with Pirrone, who labors ceaselessly to save his master's soul, even as he's frequently obliged to enable his transgressions. Their tete a tetes imbue the film with a lively philosophical undercurrent, as both men parry and thrust in a good-natured exchange of ideas. As the aristocracy undergoes its inevitable tectonic shifts, Pirrone contends that the church will offer abiding consolation and, for those willing to unburden their souls, salvation. Salina, however, scoffs at this notion, admitting starkly that the rich have little use for that which will not improve or, at the very least, maintain their station in this lifetime. "Beyond what we can touch with our own hands," confesses Salina, "we have no obligations."
Visually, The Leopard is a sumptuous creation, featuring brilliant contributions from Visconti's usual band of collaborators. Giuseppe Rotunno's influential cinematography is a vivid mixture of bright, dusty exteriors and chiaroscuro interiors, enhancing Visconti's remarkably assured and fussily blocked compositions, which are every bit as theatrical as those in the operatic Senso. Also calling to mind that earlier work are Mario Garbuglia's matchless art direction and Piero Tosi's Oscar-nominated costumes, which sensationally show off Visconti's fetishistic design tendencies. Everything in the frame, down to the fine silverware at the feast upset by Angelica's untoward behavior, seems just so, completing the film's pleasingly elegant illusion.
Meanwhile, Visconti coaxes phenomenal performances out of all his principals, most notably, of course, Lancaster, whose intimidating physicality is intriguingly turned against him. Though virile and catlike in the early going, his movements grow increasingly unsure as his dominance is slowly ceded, culminating in his tacit admission of defeat to Angelica in their climactic waltz. It's humbling in a disconcerting way to see Lancaster's once powerful Salina so thoroughly emasculated, and it's difficult to imagine any other actors of the day conveying this utter defeat with such shocking finality. Cardinale, on the other hand, shed her beauty queen image with her confident, textured work here, effortlessly evoking Angelica's raging carnality while locating her subtly manipulative center beneath layers of manufactured naiveté. It's all there in the scene where, in response to Tancredi's inappropriate dinner anecdote, she conceals a moue with the swift opening of her fan, only to reveal a delicious grin when she snaps it shut. As Tancredi, Delon puts his impossibly handsome visage to good use, though his vapidity was more memorably subverted in Antonioni's L'eclisse. Terence "Trinity" Hill also appears under his Italian billing of Mario Girotti as a count interested in courting Concetta, occasionally threatening to out-preen Delon.
By its gently tragic closing moment (there may be something worthwhile made of the echoing gunshots in this scene, but, like so much else in the film, they're overwhelmed by Lancaster's stature), The Leopard has allowed a privileged glimpse into a privileged universe that, while no longer existing in this particular form, will survive so long as money dominates human consciousness. Though his behavior is hardly admirable in a conventional moral sense, it's still possible to feel for Salina, a man whose fiercely held principles have, due to events out of his control, run him into an early extinction, just as one would gasp in horror at a magnificent beast pulling up lame in full sprint. Salina, as he professes late in the film, was a leopard; he was a brilliant, beautiful predator. But his time has come to an end, and, suddenly, his glorious life is exposed to him as nothing more than the sum total of meaningless possessions and plaudits. Visconti finally serves his humanistic instincts by refusing this creature any victory, but leaving him with his dignity.
* * *
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.
Criterion has compiled an exceptional three-disc feast of extras to celebrate the picture's first ever American release in a home viewing format, kicking things off on Disc One with the ever-insightful film scholar Peter Cowie offering valuable historical context and credible deconstruction of Visconti's intended themes. He also discusses at greater length than is found on the collection's multiple featurettes the rationale behind 20th Century Fox's decision to excise certain scenes wholesale. Interestingly, he mentions that Marlon Brando was also, along with Laurence Olivier, favored by Visconti for the role of Salina. This also goes unnoted in the featurettes, but is worthy of discussion as Brando, while much younger, was probably the only other American actor alive who could've challenged Lancaster's towering performance.
Disc Two boasts a nice assortment of supplements, the most substantive being the documentary A Dying Breed: The Making of The Leopard (61 min.). Interviewed are a number of Visconti's surviving collaborators including Cardinale, Rotunno, writers Suso Cecchi d'Amico and Enrico Medioli, and Sydney Pollack, who supervised the horrendous American dub and while they do unavoidably tend toward hagiographic commentary out of their understandable esteem for Visconti, they do allow that he was immensely difficult to work with at times (according to Cardinale, he was capable of "unbelievable cruelty"). He was particularly rough on Lancaster, the "American gangster" as he called him, but out of this brutal treatment grew a friendship that endured until the director's death. In all, this documentary offers up the kind of exhaustive examination that one wishes more so-called "Special Editions" could cobble together. It's superbly done.
Also of interest, if vaguely self-serving on the part of the interview subject, is a discussion with producer Goffredo Lombardo of the Italian company Titanus, who offers a slightly different take on the Lancaster's casting than what's come to be known as the official version (i.e. Lombardo claims that he informed Visconti that he was going to hire the actor before the deal was actually done.) The end of the interview finds Lombardo unconvincingly, and a little pathetically, talking up his plans for a sequel to the film. More interesting is the discussion with Italian history professor Millicent Marcus (13 min.), who gives a fuller picture of the events leading up to those depicted in The Leopard, as well as brief background sketches on the key players like Giribaldi. Rounding out Disc Two are a collection of stills, Italian newsreels, the Italian trailer, and two American trailers.
Finally, and of interest only to completists and those curious about the bottom-line Hollywood mentality, is the 161-minute American cut of the film. Transferred from a rough print, it's interesting to hear Lancaster's voice, which isn't nearly as gruff enough, in the role of Salina, but the other voices have not been cast with enough care. The translation seems, for the most part, to jibe with the subtitles on the Italian version, but it's still a gutted work that, in the end, makes Salina even less sympathetic. Still, despite this version's dubious artistic merits, it's an invaluable inclusion that will please the film's most ardent fans. It's just more hyena than leopard.
- Anamorphic widescreen (2.21:1)
- Dolby Digital 1.0 (Italian),
- English subtitles
- Audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie
- Documentary: A Dying Breed: The Making of the Leopard (61 min.)
- Interview with Goffredo Lombardo (19 min.)
- Interview with professor Millicent Marcus (13 min.)
- Production stills
- Italian newsreels
- Italian trailer
- Two American trailers
- Complete 161-minute American cut of The Leopard
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