When I recently worked my way back through the filmography of Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti, revisiting some old favourites and making new discoveries, I was struck by just how many of his films could, with little controversy, be considered masterpieces. His 1943 neo-realist classic Ossessione, the raw 1960 work Rocco and His Brothers, and 1971’s perfect Mahler-inspired meditation Death In Venice, would, on their own, be career highs for any filmmaker, and even his comparatively minor works – 1951’s Bellissima, 1954’s Senso, 1957’s Le Notti Bianche – are the product of a genius at the height of his powers. (Seek them out; it feels like stumbling onto the greatest secrets.) And in amongst those films, in that extraordinary and often underappreciated career, lies Visconti’s The Leopard (1963). In my eyes, his finest work. That’s not an easy claim to make, with Death In Venice looming large in the memory, but when I rewatched The Leopard earlier this year, I saw a film that managed to be broad and personal all at once; sweeping and intimate; epic and insular. Exactly fifty years ago, The Leopard won the Palm D’or at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival, and this is why.
The True Revolutionary
The story goes a little like this: In the 19th century, Don Fabrizio Corbera (Burt Lancaster), the Prince of Salina, is facing political and societal upheaval. The class system is giving way to what would now be called ‘new money’, as one-time peasants buy their way into a society you could once only be born into. In the meantime, Italian unification means that Sicily is at war, and Garibaldi’s forces are now on the island and marching ever closer. Don Fabrizio’s nephew Tacredi is joining with Garibaldi to bring about change, but his reasons are not as clear-cut as they might seem: Tancredi knows that if the aristocracy rejects change, a republic will be forced upon them; if they welcome Italy, their current system may stay the same. It is only the appearance of rebellion, and Tancredi is fighting to stay on top. Don Fabrizio weeps when he sees this come to pass, as he witnesses revolution in the truest sense: the young and downtrodden are not attempting to change the system, but to merely place themselves atop it. Change is inevitable, but nothing truly changes, and this powerful dichotomy is reflected in story, in theme, and in every moment.
It’s Burt Lancaster’s finest moment. Visconti did not originally want him in the film, thinking him a ‘cowboy’ that the studio only wanted because he was a big name. Lancaster, however, impressed Visconti by turning up to their first meeting having read the book, and proved an intense commitment to the role. It would not be the last time they worked together. Lancaster’s oscillating stoicism and passion make this establishment figure the most revolutionary character in the whole film. It’s no surprise that Visconti was so protective of the role, as the film hinges on what happens behind Don Fabrizio’s eyes. Lancaster’s casting is a risk that pays off in spades. Once Upon a Time In the West’s Claudia Cardinale essentially plays the role of a grenade, and, like the characters, you feel scandalised simply by seeing her in the room. Cardinale, like Alain Delon (Tancredi), gives a note-perfect performance, and the two absolutely match Lancaster in every scene.
It’s not that they don’t make them like this any more; they simply can’t. The beautiful anamorphic cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno captures the ancient green countryside so clearly you can almost smell it, lingering on landscapes long enough for you to take them in as you would a painting in a gallery. But this is no genteel pastoral. Hundreds upon hundreds of soldiers march mournfully on in one scene; in another, smoke rises ominously from a neighbouring estate. Even in its most tranquil and gorgeous moments, Visconti ensures there is something unsettling somewhere in the frame. It is persistently beautiful, but it is never without drama.
Don Fabrizio recognises that the aristocracy he lives in is too insular and secluded. Tancredi is set to marry his cousin, Don Fabrizio’s daughter Concetta, and though it is tradition, it is not an arrangement that Don Frabrizio is comfortable with. ‘Cousins marrying cousins does not produce good stock,’ observes Don Fabrizio as he sees the young women at the elaborate ball that makes up the last forty minutes of the film. It is Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) who captivates everyone. She is remarked to be the perfect woman, and we discover that she was fathered by a ‘wild peasant’. She is dangerous, but necessary. For society to survive, new blood is required. It is she that convinces Tancredi not to marry Concetta, and Don Fabrizio knows she is right, even though it is at the expense of his own daughter’s happiness. She is the wild spirit he desires for himself, and though she is not much younger than his own mistress, he knows it can never be. He is a relic, and cannot change this any more than a leopard can change his spots.
Point of View
This is not a staid costume drama, relying on palace intrigue for conflict. In a story populated by people with wildly differing points of view, Visconti unsettles us with purpose. Don Fabrizio gazes into a dirty mirror that obscures his reflection; as he recalls a conversation with his Tancredi, Tancredi stares down the barrel of the camera, right at the audience; as the soldiers enter the ball at the end, a stone bust obscures our vision, facing away from us and staring the soldiers down. It’s a truly affecting moment when Don Fabrizio gazes upon a painting of a man on his deathbed and openly contemplates his own mortality. He’s witnessing the death of his country, his way of life, and his family, and, in one of the film’s most powerful moments, the painting reminds him that he still has one thing left to lose.
Lee Zachariah - follow Lee on Twitter here: @leezachariah