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In the 1860s, a dying aristocracy struggles to maintain itself against a harsh Sicilian landscape. The film traces with a slow and deliberate rhythm the waning of the noble home of Fabrizio Corbero, Prince of Salina (the Leopard) and the corresponding rise to eminence of the enormously wealthy ex-peasant Don Calogero Sedara. The prince himself refuses to take active steps to halt the decline of his personal fortunes or to help build a new Sicily but his nephew Tancredi, Prince of Falconeri swims with the tide and assures his own position by marrying Don Calogero's beautiful daughter Angelica. The climatic scene is the sumptuous forty-minute ball, where Tancredi introduces Angelica to society. Written by
According to Fulco della Verdura, director Luchino Visconti's close friend, Visconti's affection for Alain Delon initially caused some favoritism. "He was the only actor to have a dressing room; poor Burt Lancaster stood around for hours waiting." See more »
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"The Leopard" is not only one of the most accomplished films of the twentieth century, but one of the most successful adaptations of a novel to the screen. Rarely has a scenarist so effectively translated the essence of a novel without compromising the source material.
This is not to say that anyone should approach the film before the Lambedusa novel. Indeed, this film might well be considered as a companion to the book--the two being almost interdependent.
Still, the depth, richness, and complexity that Mr. Visconti achieves here justifies a lengthy treatise in and of itself. Equally important is a familiarity with the social background of the story, a piece of history destined to be lost on not a few Americans. Nonetheless, the viewer is encouraged to familiarize himself with the life, writings and allocutions of Pope Pius IX, (particularly his "Syllabus of Errors"), the campaigns of Garibaldi and Mazzini, and the criminal theft of the temporal dominion of the Papacy, effected by a variety of Socialist and Masonic cabals.
But back to Mr. Visconti's film: enough good things cannot be said of it. Often, great visual films are compared to paintings and certainly the comparison is most apt here. Each frame seems to breathe a life of its own.
One is simply staggered by the beauty of the compositions--each scenic tableaux not only intelligently employs the width of the Cinemascope screen to artistic advantage, but even manages, (as in the case, again, of a great painting) to visually probe the novel's subtext.
The casting could not be improved upon. If on paper, Burt Lancaster, seems an odd choice, (what with his Curriculum Vitae brimming with gangsters, cowboys, athletes, and acrobats) he, nonetheless fully realizes both Lambedusa and Visconti's vision, creating a man with the intelligence to see not only his own life ebbing away, but recognizing that the order he embodies, and represents is also simultaneously collapsing.
In short, Mr. Lancaster's character personifies nothing short of a tragic loss--the collapse of the noble/aristocratic and chivalric European world order, and, with it, the complex value system, and interdependent mode of decorous deportment that the value system supported, (welcome to the Welfare State, "progressivist" social engineering, and the enshrinement of the declasse.)
Though her character is tainted with arriviste origins, Claudia Cardinale enchants in her interpretation of Angelica. Note the way Mr. Visconti stages her entrance in one of the film's most memorable sequences. As the family gathers in the salon prior to a small dinner party, an anticipatory rustle signals Angelica's arrival. Framed over and through an oil lamp and spray of daisies, and underscored by a recapitulation of Nino Rota's main theme, she glides through the salon, a vision in cream taffeta, elaborate chignon, and a rose at her bosom, plainly enrapturing and even intimidating the entire party. The pitch and sincerity of her voice and diction as she greets the Prince is a marvel of growing self possession.
Miss Cardinale's beauty is of a rare order, and Alain Delon is nearly her match, with a gallantry and swagger that perfectly encapsulate Tancredi. Supporting roles from the Jesuit to Angelica's father are flawless both in type and execution.
The ball sequence defies comment. It is truly one of those things, for which the phrase, "must be seen to be believed" may be applied. The viewer can almost touch the watered silk swagged drapes, feel the swish of embroidered gowns, taste the flavored ices and blanc manges, and smell the liquored air, a waft with the heady mixture of verbena and attar of roses.
When, at the scene's near close, we behold an depleted elderly woman in green silk fanning herself in the far right side of the frame whilst some brave young things continue their exhausted dance, we seem to be viewing a Tissot come to life.
And Nino Rota must be complimented on his majestic score, the main theme of which is of heart breaking beauty and tenderness.
Ironically, "The Leopard" will scarcely find populist appeal in a country for whom MacDonalds, Wallmart, and Oprah appear to provide all that is needed or wished for. No, it is not intended to be accessible to every Tom, Dick or Harry. This would surprise neither Prince Lambedusa or Mr. Visconti.
But for those who know better--savor it! "The Leopard" seeps into one's pores like a drug, after which it demands to be seen again and again.
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