Oscar Movies: Leopard–Visconti’s Masterpiece Starring Lancaster

The 3-disc DVD contains interesting commentary from Peter Cowie (my former colleague at Variety), a new retrospective documentary, and an English-language version, in which Burt Lancaster dubs himself.

Based on Giuseppe di Lampedusas novel, Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard” is a masterpiece that gloriously visualizes the mood of melancholy and nostalgia of the passing of an age of an aristocratic Italian clan.

Exquisite from first frame to last, Viconti’s 1963 epic deals with the tensions, both internal and external, bearing down on a grand Sicilian clan in the late nineteenth century is one of the greatest cinematic sagas ever, a film that has influenced many directors, including Martin Scorsese (“The Age of Innocence”).

Burt Lancaster plays an Italian prince in the 1860s, who laments the passing of the old aristocratic order, symbolized by the marriage of his nephew (Alain Delon) to a merchants daughter (Claudia Cardinale).

Sentiment and sadness prevail throughout the movie but not in an obvious or melodramatic way. The movie is set within a palace in the stark Sicilian hills on the outskirts of Palermo. There are magnificent tableaux vivants (almost like paintings) of incidents in the baroque life of a noble Sicilian family in the mid-nineteenth century.

The young people are the inheritors of the inevitable changes brought about to the land by Risorgimento of Garibaldi. Visconti captures vividly the autumnal mood of change and decay that the onrush of revolution brought to one family, and to the spirits of one man in particular.

Faithful to the spirit of the novel, Visconti’s rendition is not intrusive, and he smartly devotes few scenes to the external politics, such as Garibaldi ‘s conquests of Sicily, briefly depicted as a combat between the Red Shirts and Bourbons in Palermo’s narrow streets. And Visconti, himself a descendant of aristocracy, simply implies how the Risorgimento freed and elevated the new Italian middle class.

The movie teems with many wonderful sequences and moments. Claudia Cardinales entrance in this picture is one of the all-time great character introductions. The great, gaudy end-of-an-era banquet takes up the last 40 minutes of the nearly three-hour saga. This detailed depiction of a ball is deservedly considered to be one of the most celebrated set pieces in film history, emulated by many filmmakers, including Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter,” in which the first 40 minutes depict a wedding.

One of the greatest color CinemaScope films ever, “The Leopard” won the top prize at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival. Sumptuously made, the film was shot by ace cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and scored by Nino Rota (better known for his work for Fellini).

Film History Alert

“The Leopard” was not a success when first released in the US. It was trimmed by 40 minutes and badly dubbed. The film was restored to its original length and theatrically re-released, in 1983, just before the VCR changed entirely the movie scene.

Oscar Alert

“The Leopard” was nominated for one Oscar, costume design for Piero Tosi, but the winner was “Cleopatra.”