Luchino Visconti's The Leopard has, in recent years, come back to life for lovers for cinema – due to the gradual restoration of prints and a careful DVD release.
Few films can hold a candle to The Leopard – which is, alongside Max Ophüls's Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), one of the rare almost-perfect, pristine works of the cinema.
The Leopard also has the honour of being one of the medium's finest literary adaptations – a faultless distillation of the incidents, moods and themes of Giuseppe de Lampedusa's novel. It is the terse, bittersweet chronicle of the changes that sweep over an aristocratic family headed by the dignified Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster), as the unification of Italy looms.
Each character in this fresco is both a vividly realised individual and the representative of a social type – such as Fabrizio's nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), a young man canny enough to realise that it is better to marry the earthy Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), symbol of a new middle class, than Fabrizio's pampered daughter Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi).
The Leopard is a superbly paced, beautifully rhythmic movie. This is hardly surprising given that time – individual, lived, biographical time versus the implacable march of historical time – is Visconti's main subject. As Sam Rohdie has commented, this director staged the past with striking realism, while at the same time capturing the moment of its disappearance, and hinting at the way we, today, would look upon it with an ambivalence mixing nostalgia with criticism.
There are many books and films about the glory days of dynasties, families, lifestyles or cultures eclipsed and destroyed by a barbaric new order. Most of them exploit an easy, maudlin, vapid sentimentality. The profound insight offered by The Leopard is of an entirely different order: it shows a situation of change and social renewal from every conceivable angle, and quietly asks us to draw our own conclusions.
It is surprising to see the film today in the context of Visconti's entire career. With his love of opera, he became best known as a master of sweeping, passionate melodrama. But The Leopard is a relatively quiet and restrained movie: passions simmer beneath its surface, but poise reigns over vulgarity. This manner is a fraction away from becoming too stately and academic, but the film's lucid intelligence saves it from such a prettified fate.
The Leopard's influence on another, contemporary masterpiece, Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993), is abundantly evident. In the buttoned-down world Visconti portrays, the wind carries all: it brings in the noise of political commotion from the street, it lays the dust of the real world upon those who dare travel, and it fans the erotic games of lovers.
The film reveals Visconti at the height of his stylistic mastery – after his early forays into neo-realism and before the Baroque excesses of his last works of the '70s, where he became overly fond of the lazy zoom lens. In a work that is overwhelmingly staged in wide or long shot – always stressing social contexts, hierarchies, arrangements – the slightest step into close-up registers as a seismic emotional jolt.
Thus does Visconti reserve his close angles for the most powerful, intimate and sensual moments of the story.
MORE Visconti: Le notti bianche
© Adrian Martin October 1997/December 2003