Monday, November 28, 2016

The Leopard

Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale 

  I've been meaning to include the film version of "The Leopard" in the Masterpiece section of the Weekly Bystander for some time but the contentious Presidential election took most of my attention in the past few months. But the reaction to the election results brought to mind the most famous line from the book and the movie. 

                          "Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same."

The DVD version of “The Leopard”, Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece, gives us an opportunity to view a great film and get a history lesson at the same time. The film stars Burt Lancaster in perhaps his greatest performance as a world weary, nineteenth century Sicilian aristocrat. He is surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast that includes the young and beautiful Claudia Cardinale, and the noted French actor, Alain Delon.

The film is a faithful adaptation of the novel of the same name by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, himself an Italian aristocrat. It tells the story of an episode in the “Risorgimento”, the name given to the movement for Italian unification in the nineteenth century. In the background is the invasion of Sicily by a small army of red-shirted revolutionaries led by Giuseppe Garibaldi that successfully overthrew the ancient monarchy of Naples and Sicily in 1860.

Both Lampedusa’s novel and Visconti’s film make it clear that Risorgimento is a nice word for the conquest of the rural, feudal South of Italy by the urban, industrialized North. It is interesting that the events depicted in “The Leopard” coincide with our own Civil War. “Gone with the Wind” could well be the American version of “The Leopard.” In both epics the members of an aristocratic household are trying to keep their heads above water during and after the calamitous events that engulf them. In both cases an old world is fading away and being replaced by a new world full of schemers and parvenus. Only those who can adapt to the new circumstances will be able to survive.

“Gone with the Wind” centers around Tara, the beautiful Georgian estate of the O’Hara family. “The Leopard” centers around Donnafugata, the equally beautiful Sicilian estate of Don Fabrizio Corbera, the Prince of Salina. In both films we see the families, the neighbors, the servants, and the peasants or slaves who combine to provide a picture of Southern life.

In GWTW Scarlett O’ Hara, the family’s spoiled daughter, is the central figure, but Visconti’s masterpiece revolves around the father of the family, Don Fabrizio. He sees himself as a leopard who will only be succeeded by hyenas and jackals. Burt Lancaster plays Don Fabrizio to perfection although one of the commentaries in the DVD set notes that the aristocratic Visconti originally considered Lancaster as little more than a cowboy actor.

The DVD set comes in two versions: an Italian language one with English subtitles, in which only Lancaster’s voice is dubbed; and an English version where Lancaster speaks English and everyone else’s voice is dubbed. I prefer the Italian language version especially since Italian movie makers do such a great job of dubbing. You would swear that Burt Lancaster is actually speaking Italian.

The film is beautifully photographed both inside and out. The DVD commentary explains the extraordinary efforts Visconti took to recreate even the minutest details of Sicilian life. The ball scene toward the end of the film is magnificent. While the film can be enjoyed on its own, the various commentaries on the DVD set add to the enjoyment. There are also interviews with some of the participants including a still beautiful Claudia Cardinale, as well as an historical introduction to the background of the Risorgimento.


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