THE LEOPARD (Il Gattopardo) directed by Luchino Visconti (1963)
The sumptuous sets and lavish costumes together with the leisurely pace of this movie means that it should be enjoyed in a cinema.
Watching it at home, nursing a cold and making sure the cat doesn’t jump behind the TV are not the ideal circumstances to appreciate the subtleties of this drama.
The director’s cut was butchered by distributors, the savage editing and insensitive dubbing has meant that it has only been possible to see it in a form Visconti envisaged since 1990. This was when a fully restored Italian-language version, supervised by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, appeared; a labour of love overseen by Martin Scorsese’s preservation group The Film Foundation.
The story is set in 1860s Sicily against the background of the impending unification of Italy. It is based on the one and only novel by Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, published posthumously in 1958.
For such an Italian story, the international cast was a compromise necessary to get the movie financed. Burt Lancaster is an unlikely choice in the central role of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, a ‘leopard’ who must learn to change his spots. He turns out to be an inspired choice as he brings a great dignity to the part of an ageing nobleman who is all too aware of the social changes and of his own mortality.
The fact that he is the most sympathetic character shows that Visconti, a Marxist, was intelligent enough to realise that he didn’t need to hammer home the political message – the remarkable 45 minute ballroom scene which closes the movie in some style makes the point clearly enough that this social gathering signifies the end of an era rather than the continuation of a tradition.