Leopard, The (1963): Visconti’s Masterpiece, Starring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale

A restored version of Luchino Visconti’s 1963 “The Leopard” was shown at the 2010 Cannes Film Fest, last week. Considered to be Visconti’s most accomplished film, “The Leopard” stars American Burt Lancaster, French Alain Delon, and Italian Claudia Cardinale. The film, which won the top prize, the Palme d’Or at the 1963 Cannes Film Fest, is a must-see for all movie lovers.

Based on Giuseppe di Lampedusas famous novel, Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard,” made in 1963, is a masterpiece that gloriously visualizes the mood of melancholy and nostalgia of the passing of an entire age through the decline of one aristocratic Italian clan.

Exquisite from first frame to last, Visconti’s epic deals with the tensions, both internal and external, bearing down on a grand Sicilian family in the late nineteenth century. It is one of the greatest cinematic sagas ever made, a film that has influenced many directors, including Martin Scorsese, specifically in “The Age of Innocence” (1993).
“The Leopard” opens as Garibaldi’s red-shirted volunteers have invaded Sicily in an attempt to annex the island to the Kingdom of Italy. The landed aristocrats, remnants of a feudal era, must now honor their obligations to the Bourbons or come to an accommodation with the victorious middle class.
Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina (the “leopard” of the title, played brilliantly by Burt Lancaster) represents the old aristocracy, known for its culture, grace, and style. He allows his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon), an impulsive and calculating but likable youngster, to join the revolutionaries, a decision which eventually associates the Houser of Salin with the victors and ensures their survival in the new order.
While the older aristocratic families struggle to survive, manipulating the course of events, equally self-serving middle-class merchants and liberal politicians emerges to divide the spoils from the political upheaval they have engineered. This class is personified in the film by Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), a comic figure whose power derives from the ecclesiastical properties he had purchased after their confiscation, and whose manners provide the House of Salina with constant source of amusement.
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 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. Visconti, himself a descendant of aristocracy, suggests in his picture how the Risorgimento freed and elevated the new Italian middle class.
The movie teems with many wonderful sequences and moments. Claudia Cardinale’s entrance in this picture is one of the all-time great character introductions. The great, gaudy end-of-an-era wedding 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.
The critic Noell-Smith has correctly observed that, “There is constant tension in Visconti’s work between an intellectual belief in the cause of progress and an emotional nostalgia for the past world that is being destroyed.” Visconti’s thematic nostalgia finds a stylistic counterpart in his penchant for operatic cinema. (His critical reputation has been firmly based upon his operatic or theatrical productions as well as on his film work.)
His fascination with the dramatic potential of the family as a unit runs through most of Visconti’s films, but it finds its greatest artistic expression in “Rocco and His Brothers,” “The Leopard” and “The Damned,” all of which integrate family histories into broader political accounts of Italian society (In “The Damned,” the story unfolds against the rise of National Socialism in Germany).
Visconti’s 1960s and 1970s films display increasing interest in recreating lavish, carefully designed costumes and period sets, props that are intended to evoke the spirit of vanished eras.
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).
“The Leopard” was not a commercial success when first released in the US.  The film was trimmed by 40 minutes and badly dubbed.  In 1983, the film was restored to its original length and theatrically re-released to great critical acclaim and commercial success. (It was released just before the VCR Revolution and benfited from long theatrical runs in many cities)
Oscar Alert
“The Leopard” was nominated for one Oscar, costume design for Piero Tosi, but the winner was “Cleopatra.”
About Visconti
Born as Count Don Luchino Visconti di Modrone, November 2, 1906, in MilanItaly, the noted director died in 1976. A descendant of Milan‘s highest ranking nobility and one of the leading aristocratic families in Italy, Visconti did military service, and spent much of his youth cultivating his tastes for music, art, and horses.
Visconit’s first association with the performing arts was as a set designer for a 1928 play. He was 30 when he began his career as a working artist, joining the famous French filmmaker Jean Renoir in Paris as a costume designer and assistant director, contributing to such films as “A Day in the Country” and “The Lower Depths.”
Away from the restrictive atmosphere of Fascist Italy, Visconti came under the influence of communist ideology, to which he remained committed in the ensuing years, in sharp contrast to his early aristocratic upbringing and then private lifestyle.
In the late 1930s, Visconti came briefly to the U.S., but, like other foreign directors, he felt uncomfortable in Hollywood and returned to Italy quite disappointed.
After working as an assistant on Verdi’s opera “La Tosca,” Visconti set out to make his first film. He wanted to adapt to the screen a work by Giovanni Verga, a Sicilian novelist idolized by the Italian leftist underground for his naturalistic style, known as “Verismo.”
Visconti’s project met with strong resistance from Fascist censors, he changed his mind, and, to allay their suspicions, submitted a script adapted from the hard boiled writer James Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” The resultant film, “Ossessione” (1942) was ostensibly a drama about the destructive powers of sexual passion and betrayal, but its realistic depiction of the proletariat life under fascism enraged the authorities, which mutilated the film. “Ossessione” heralded the Italian neorealist movement in its naturalistic setting and earthy texture, three years before Rossellini made his neorealist masterpiece, “Roma, Open City.” 
For many years, Western critics couldn’t see “Ossessione” and thus considered “Roma, Open City,” as the first major work of the worldwide influential Italian movement ne-orealitsic cinema. Textbooks had to be changed in the wake of discovering “Ossessione.”
Visconti’s second feature, “La Terra Trema” (“The Earth Trembles,” 1948), a sprawling drama of the Italian South, Visconti moved away from pure realism toward the elaborate decorative style that was to characterize his later films. “La Terra Trema” is a masterful work combining such documentary elements as local dialect in the sound track and a nonprofessional cast, combined with elaborately structured compositions and movements and stunning lighting effects.
The transition from neo-realism to a nearly operatic grand cinema style was even more evident in Visconti’s “Senso,” a striking color production of flamboyant proportions and an acknowledged classic pf postwar Italian cinema.
Visconti’s international reputation was established early in his career and remained undiminished, despite occasional misfires. Though in the 1960s and 1970s, his films became increasingly infrequent, each picture was an “event,” eagerly awaited by his international admirers.
All along, Visconti also gained much prestige as an innovative theater and opera director, and was credited with the development of Maria Callas into an operatic superstar.
A recurrent theme in Visconti’s films is the moral disintegration of a family, ranging from the tragic transplantation of southern proletariat to Milan in “Rocco and His Brothers” (1960) to the decadence of the wealthy Krupp family in “The Damned” (1969), which boasted an international cast, headed by Brit Dirk Bogarde, Swede Ingrid Tulin, and German Helmut Berger.
Visconit’s “Sandra” (aka as “Vaghe Stelle dell’Orsa”) won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival in 1965. In 1971, Visconti’s personal interpretation (some say distortion) of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” lost the top prize at the Cannes Festival to Joseph Losey’s “The Go-Between,” but Visconti was compensated with a Special 25the Anniversary Award for his cumulative work
Visconti’s Status
Along with Fellini and Antonioni, Visconti was the third contemporary Italian director whose work received wide American and international recognition in the 1960s.
Visconti’s style and sensibility have stirred controversy among among American critics. With all due respect, I disagree with the late Pauline Kael, who once wrote: “Visconti’s pictures have often had an undercurrent of silliness, though solemn pacing kept audience respectful,” and with David Thomson’s more recent assessment that “on the international art-house circuit, Visconti’s flamboyant treatment of a few prestigious ventures passed for respectability, but he doesn’t begin to rate at the highest level; his work is trivial ornate and unconvinced.”
Other critics vilified Visconti for his calculated melodramatic tendencies and high-minded literary projects, but still acknowledged the highly entertaining values of his work. Indeed, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, around “The Damned” and Death in Venice,” Visconti was a staple on campuses, exciting students to see and talk about his movies.
As with Antonioni, and later Pasolini and Bertolucci, there’s an unresolved tension in Visconti’s best work between his social Marxist perspective and the commitment to sheer cinematic aesthetics and the beauty of the image as a legit value in its own right, further complicated by his growing awareness of his homosexuality and its impact on his films.
Filmography
1942: Obsession (Ossessione, also co-sc)
1943: Giorni Di Gloria
1948: The Earth Trembles (La Terra Trema, also co-sc)
1951: Appunti su un Fatto di Cronoca (docu short); Bellissima
“Siamo Donne (“We the Women,” the Anna Magnani episode), which
1953: In the U.S. We the Women was added to another film, Questa e la
            Vita (Of Life and Love)
1954: Senso /The Wanton Contessa
1957: Le Notti Bianche (White Nights)
1960: Rocco e I suoi Fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers)
1962:    Boccachio 70 (“The Job Episode”)
1963: Il Gattopardo (The Leopard)
1965: Vaghe Stelle dell’sOrsa (Sandra)
1967: Le Streghe (The Witches, “The Witch Burned” episode)
            Lo Straniero (The Stranger)
1969: La Caduta Degli Dei (The Damned)
1971: Morte a Venezia (Death in Venice)
1972: Ludwig II
1975: Gruppo di Famiglia in uno Inferno (Conversation Piece)
1976: L’Innocente (The Innocent, aka The Intruder)