Leopard, The (1963): Visconti’s Sumptuous Evocation of Irreversible Historical Change–Observations

Updated October 7, 2020:

Based on Giuseppe di Lampedusas novel, Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard is one of his masterpieces, a unique art work that’s intimately personal yet utterly accessible as mass entertainment, which explains its durable artistic and commercial stature.

The world that the film depicts is irreversibly changing, manifest in the motto: “If we want everything to stay the same, everything must change.”

Particular in context and time, it’s also universal in its masterful evocation of the mood of melancholy and nostalgia that mark the passing of an age–and an irreversibly changing world–through the tale of one aristocratic Italian clan.

Exquisite from first frame to last, Visconti’s sumptuous 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.

The film’s visual style and production values have had a lasting influence on the work of many younger directors, including Michael Cimino’s 1978 Oscar winning picture “The Deer Hunter” (specifically in the inclusion of a lengthy wedding sequence). and Martin Scorsese’s 1993 “The Age of Innocence,” a literary adaptation of another passing age.

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.

Sumptuously mounted, The Leopard consists of several magnificent tableaux vivants (almost like paintings) , which depict various incidents–both positive and negative–that define 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 Cardinale’s 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.

The sequence of the wedding, which occupies one third of the film’s running time, conveys the unforgettable sense of the palace’s opulence, a magnificence that goes beyond the splendor of the setting and costumes.

Lancaster is perfectly cast as a distinguished aristocrat, who is aware of, perhaps even obsessed with his mortality, perceiving the premonitory signs of his death everywhere.

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 Alert

“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, te film was restored to its original length and theatrically re-released to great critical acclaim.

Oscar Alert

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