CLASSIC MOVIE SUNDAYS: The Leopard - Il Gattopardo (1963)
Georgios Merkouris / March 24, 2019
( 2 min read )
The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) (1963)
Director: Luchino Visconti
Runtime: 186 min
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale, Paolo Stoppa, Rina Morelli, Terence Hill, Romolo Valli etc.
In 1980, a small miracle aroused film lovers everywhere. For the first time, The Leopard’s was re-released in its full length, in the original Italian, and with English subtitles. The film had made a modest debut in 1963. In spite of the fact that it was directed by one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of his era and starred one of the most popular actors in Hollywood history, it did not manage to make an impact in the film community. Forty minutes were cut by the studio in order to make it more commercially appealing. It was dubbed in English, with an audio track that not only was out of sync but also clashed tonally with the mood Visconti was trying to establish. Yet, after a restoration supervised by none other than the film’s director of photography, the rightfully acclaimed Giuseppe Rotunno, “The Leopard” hit the theatres once again. Finally, the director’s original vision was made available for the public to witness.
Set in Sicily during the time of the famous “Risorgimento”, “The Leopard” chronicles the story of Don Fabrizio di Corbera, Prince of Salina, masterfully portrayed by Burt Lancaster. A staunch royalist and supporter of the Bourbon dynasty, Don Fabrizio concerns himself mostly with maintaining his estate, looking after his family, and performing religious ceremonies. In fact, the film itself opens with a family prayer. All of this is disrupted when the corpse of a rebel soldier is found in the Prince’s garden. Revolution has come to upset the quiet life in a country estate. Don Fabrizio’s ambitious nephew, Tancredi (played by a young Alain Delon), decides to join Garibaldi’s forces and fight for a unified Italy. The Prince himself, finding himself unable to stop the change from occurring, quickly resigns and even works to facilitate it.
Unlike Hollywood epics that helped inspire it in parts, The Leopard is a deeply personal story. Every event that occurs is observed through the eyes of the Prince of Salina. After all, the character is featured in almost every single scene. Viewers get to observe every bit of his actions, from his musings with his family to the solitary moments of quiet retrospection. By the end of the film, one gets the sense that they truly understand this character and his world-view. This is helped tremendously by Lancaster’s virtuoso performance. His gestures, posture, and eye movement suggest a world of depth. Lancaster was considered the wrong choice for the part, since, by being an American actor, primarily known for playing in westerns and film-noirs, he could not possibly understand the nuances of a European aristocrat. This is hard to imagine nowadays, when the performance seems so inextricably linked to what makes the film work.
Director Luchino Visconti himself was born into one of the oldest and noblest aristocratic families in Europe. This helped the filmmaking process, since every aspect of the production is packed with his exquisite eye for detail. In this case, that eye was informed by being raised in an environment not quite unlike Don Fabrizio’s. There is a quiet atmosphere of melancholy permeating throughout most of the film, since the two major themes are the death of an era and the betrayal of the ideals of the revolution. In spite of being born an aristocrat, Visconti also considered himself a Marxist, something which enriches the dualistic nature of its major themes. In “The Leopard”, one empathizes with individuals whose circumstances feel totally alien to the majority of the population. Like all great works of art, Visconti has taken something narrowly particular and made it universal, in the process proving the potential that cinema has to affect someone in the way that great novels have in the past.
You can watch the trailer of The Leopard, here: