March 30, 2003
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale, Paola Stoppa, Rina Morelli, Romolo Valli, Mario Girotti, Pierre Clementi, Lucilla Morlacchi, Ida Galli, Marino Mase, Ivo Garrani, Leslie French, ,
Adapted from a novella by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard (1963) paints a vivid picture of the Italian aristocracy falling from grace and the middle class revolting to form a more democratic Italy on an epic canvas. Caught up in this class revolution is an affluent family led by the Prince of Salina, Don Fabrizio Corbera (Lancaster). He recognizes that he is part of an obsolete generation and that his young nephew, Tancredi Falconeri (Delon), and his beautiful fiancée, Angelica Sedara (Cardinale), represent the new order.
Luchino Visconti represents this class revolution on several levels. The revolutionaries take the fight to the streets and this is depicted on a grand scale as they swarm all over Palermo forcing the royalist soldiers to retreat in rapidly dwindling numbers. Visconti also shows the class struggle via the generation gap. At a formal family dinner, Tancredi not only snubs Don Fabrizio’s daughter in favour of Angelica, but he also tells an off-colour story to which Angelica laughs heartily and for far too long. This offends the older people who all leave the table, sending a clear message to the younger folk that they will not tolerate such rude behaviour.
Burt Lancaster is an odd casting choice to play the head of an Italian aristocratic family but he is able to convey the right amount of nobility necessary for the role because in real life he was the American equivalent of aristocracy—a Hollywood movie star. He also gives his character an air of sadness. Don Fabrizio realizes that his day in the sun is over and gives his blessing to Tancredi and Angelica’s marriage. Don Fabrizio is a tragic figure who straddles two eras and resigns himself to obsolescence.
Alain Delon is also cast against type. Known more for being one of the stars of the French New Wave, he is excellent as an ambitious social climber who goes from fighting for the revolutionaries to the royalists when it suits his interests. Tancredi is an opportunist who is quick to establish himself in Italian’s new democracy.
The Leopard is a marvel of exquisite set design and art direction. Don Fabrizio and his family’s palace is filled with richly, detailed sets of opulence. Luchino Visconti fills every scene with incredible period architecture that would be impossible to duplicate now without the aid of CGI or a lot of money. Director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno uses a vibrant colour palette. For example, there is a scene where Don Fabrizio goes hunting with the vast Italian countryside, coloured in rich sepia and amber tones, in the background.
The Leopard’s signature shot, the one that really conveys the feeling of epic grandeur, occurs in the film’s third act. There is a brilliant tracking shot of the banquet room where everyone is eating dinner. The women’s costumes are made of brocade, satins and silks with the light hitting them just right. The ambient sound of silverware clinking against fine china and people having animated conversations with each other makes one feel like they are really there. This single, grandiose shot let’s one know that they just don’t make movies like this anymore.
The Leopard is a gorgeous period film that takes its time to let the audience really soak up the atmosphere and become enveloped in this world. Visconti uses long takes so that one can fully appreciate his incredible compositions—each frame is like a classical painting.
The first DVD features an audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie. He provides the backstory to Visconti’s career leading up to The Leopard. Cowie talks at length about the film in relation to its source material. He also examines the director’s masterful compositions and how he moved away from Neorealism to an epic canvas. This is a strong, informative track that is an excellent introduction to the cinema of Visconti.
The second DVD starts off with a fantastic, hour-long documentary, entitled “A Dying Breed: The Making of the Leopard,” that was created especially for the DVD. There are interviews with most of the surviving cast and crew, including Claudia Cardinale and the film’s screenwriters. The Leopard was a personal project for Visconti who identified closely with Don Fabrizio. This is an excellent look at The Leopard from the origins of the novel to the film’s botched U.S. version that truncated Visconti’s vision and was re-dubbed with English-speaking actors.
There is also a “Goffredo Lombardo Interview” with the producer of The Leopard. The film subsequently bankrupted his company, Titanus Films but he has since recouped his losses. Despite this, Lombardo fondly remembers making the movie. He recounts all sorts of entertaining stories, including how he cast Burt Lancaster in the movie. Visconti initially balked at the idea (whom he called “a cowboy”) and the actor had never heard of the filmmaker. However, after screening a copy of Rocco and His Brothers (1960), he agreed to do the film.
“The History of Risorgimento” examines the real historical figures and the times they lived in with the professor of Italian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Millicent Marcus. This is a really good primer for anyone who is unfamiliar with this particular period of Italian history.
Finally, there is a “Promotional Materials” section with an extensive stills gallery, a vintage Italian newsreel of the film’s premiere and its success at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and three trailers—one Italian and two American.
The third and final DVD features a remastered copy of the truncated U.S. version that was dubbed in English and included Lancaster’s actual voice.
Criterion has pulled off quite a coup with this DVD set. This is the first time that The Leopard has ever appeared on DVD. Criterion has painstakingly restored the film to its original glory, with a flawless transfer and included both the Italian and U.S. versions. It is a fitting package for this cinematic masterpiece.