The long career of Luchino Visconti, one of Italy's most successful directors, went through several distinct phases. I considered writing about his second film, "La Terra Trema," one of the great Italian Neo Realist classics, about a family of fisherman who struggle against systemic exploitation. I also considered "Death in Venice," his gorgeous English-language adaptation of the tragic German novel, made a quarter century later when his work became more personal. I compromised and came up in the middle, with "The Leopard," Visconti's historical epic about the twilight of the Sicilian noble class in 1860 on the eve of revolution and a new social order. Comparisons to "Gone with the Wind" are inevitable and appropriate.
"The Leopard" was a massive production, with the bill footed by Twentieth Century Fox. The original cut was over three hours, which would be trimmed by twenty minutes for an awkward English language release that unfortunately sank the film's prospects in the U.S. The studio insisted on a Hollywood leading man, so Burt Lancaster was chosen to play Don Fabrizio Corbera, the Prince of Salina, with rising French stars Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale in supporting roles. Some would argue, however, that the real star of the film is the art direction, which is magnificent. There have been few epics to match the splendor and the grandeur of "The Leopard," particularly the scenes of warfare in Sicily, and a lengthy ball sequence where the full glory of the nobility is put on display, perhaps for the last time. Visconti had a penchant for massive scenes of decadence, and the film is practically bursting with spectacle, with color, and with visual detail. The red of Garibaldi's Red Shirts was never redder, and real descendants of Italian noble families were recruited to fill out the crowds at the ball.
A common criticism of Visconti is that he let his style overwhelm his substance in his later films. Many preferred his stark, black-and-white Neo Realist films that focused squarely on the struggles of the common man. However, I find Visconti to be at his most effective when he examines both the high and the low against the backdrop of Italian history. Like many of Visconti's films, "The Leopard" is about social change as seen through the disruption and decline of a prominent family, the Salinas. This is contrasted with the rise of the opportunistic Calogero family and the new mayor, who is essentially an early Mafioso. Visconti was himself descended from the ruling class, and had no trouble pointing out the flaws and foibles of both clans, but I appreciate that he treats them both with dignity too. In other hands, Calogero would have been a comic villain, but his aims are shown to be idealistic, if not pure. And then there's Don Fabrizio, whose power and influence are vast, but he understands that he cannot win against the changing tides of history.
Lancaster was famously cast without Visconti's knowledge, but proved to be excellent in the role of Don Fabrizio, and would later claim that it was his best performance. Though the scope of "The Leopard" is vast, moving through gleaming period recreations of 19th century Italy, it's really a character piece about Don Fabrizio realizing that his time is quickly passing by. He is the "leopard" of the title, who cannot change his spots and can only resign himself to his inevitable ousting by the rising middle class and the new generation. It is in his nature to want the beautiful Angelica, Claudia Cardinale at her most attractive, just as it is in his nature to gracefully step aside in favor his ambitious nephew and all that he represents. Lancaster's best moments are the silent ones, particularly as he makes his way through the ball, feeling his age and mortality. Through his eyes, the festivities are melancholy and poignant, signaling the end of his era.
There are few directors who could mount a melodrama in such memorable terms, who could combine insightful social commentary with lavish spectacle. Visconti was one of the fathers of Italian Neo Realism, but also produced some of the greatest cinema portraits of the European aristocracy. His lengthy resume bridges Italy's past and it's future, linking film and theater, literature, and opera. And "The Leopard" remains the embodiment of his very best work.
What I've Seen - Luchino Visconti
La Terra Trema (1948)
White Nights (1957)
Rocco and His Brothers (1960)
The Leopard (1963)
The Damned (1969)
Death in Venice (1971)