Luchino Visconti's opulent adaptation of Lampedusa's novel, The Leopard was released to international (if not American) acclaim in 1963, five years after the novel was published. The film adheres closely to the first 2/3rds of the novel -- that is, the part of the book dominated by the fierce and conservative Prince of Salina (beautifully played by Burt Lancaster -- he speaks in English but his lines are dubbed into gruff-sounding baritone Italian). Despite its international cast and epic scope, the film is meditative, contemplative and melancholy; it is also essential plotless in the sense that there is no real narrative -- the movie explores a character, the intelligent and sad Prince of Salina and his situation: at the end of the movie, the hero crosses a squalid plaza in Palermo, ignores a scrawny cat that also slinks from darkness to darkness, and, then, vanishes into the shadows of a narrow poverty-stricken alley. Although the film begins with resplendent images of the Prince's great villa and estate at Donafugata, lush groves of olive trees and bright gardens beneath a craggy barren mountain, the long film (185 minutes) ends in nondescript darkness.
Although the film is devoid of much in the way of events, the movie's stately progression of beautiful images explores Sicilian politics and aristocratic family life during the Risorgimento -- the Piedmontese, that is northern Italians, have invaded the island with Garibaldi. The Red Shirt guerillas and rebels wish to wrest the Kingdom away from Bourbon rule and annex the island to the mainland. The effect of this campaign is to haul ancient Sicily into the political arena of the mid-19th century -- that is, to destroy the ancient royal prerogatives of people like the Prince. Although the Prince reluctantly supports the expulsion of Bourbon power and unification with the rest of Italy, he also is clear-sighted enough to recognize that these developments signal the beginning of the end for his class. Indeed, Visconti posits that the old Prince represents the last of his kind, the last "leopard" as it will to reign with autonomy over his estates and villages. The old Prince is a liberal of a kind, enlightened and a student of astronomy and the natural sciences and he recognizes that modern democracy will make his class superfluous or, worse, merely parasitic. As a patriot, he supports the modernization of Sicily, although he doubts that the project will succeed and, at the end of the film notes that the Sicilians, who have never had to rule themselves in the real world, have always retreated into a fantasy existence in which they are robust, unmannerly, violent, and child-like Gods. Sicily, he thinks, will always resist the processes of modernity: it's archaic blood-feuds and ancient families will somehow survive, but fatally wounded. Like Lampedusa in his novel, Visconti develops these ideas through a series of philosophical and epigrammatic dialogues between the Prince and his priest or the Prince and his much-beloved nephew, Tancredi, the impetuous young man in which the old Leopard sees his younger self. There are a number of long colloquies that stop the action, such as it is, interrupting the film with extended socio-political discourse -- these scenes are of varying interest to an American viewer: some of them are thrilling and poignant, others are simply dull. To the extent that there is a story, the film concerns the Prince's maneuvers to effect the marriage of his nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon) to the fabulously beautiful Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). These measures are fraught with peril for the old Prince: his own daughter, Cosetta, a woman that the Prince greatly admires, loves Tancredi and is his natural match. But the Prince feels that the blood-lines of the old aristocracy is deformed by marriages between cousins and, instead, promotes the marriage to Angelica, the daughter of a shopkeeper and bourgeoisie Don Colangelo. Colagelo is nouveau riche, vulgar, and acquisitive -- he's always concerned with what things cost. But he is the epitome of the new democratic economy in Sicily and has enriched himself by acquiring the estates of the impoverished aristocrats. (Lampedusa was a great admirer of William Faulkner and the influence of that writer is clear in both novel and movie: Don Colagelo is similar to the Snopes characters in Faulkner's books -- they are merchants who displace the old aristocrats from their place in the sun.) Tancredi goes to fight with Garibaldi and there are some large-scale, if rather desultory, battle scenes: the men seem more occupied with cutting a romantic, dashing figure in their bright uniforms than engaging in combat: the real core of the fighting involves the summary execution of prisoners and a rabble of women who harry one man to death, hanging him by the neck in the ruins -- Visconti's point seems to be that "valor" consists of killing prisoners and the women are far more ferocious and lethal than the men. He shoots the battle scenes from a high angle -- streets and barricades swarmed with red and blue-shirted soldiers, charge and futile counter-charges, a kind of absurd chaos. (The futile cruelty of this warfare is emphasized in the end when Garibaldi sympathizers, now in disrepute, are shot at dawn, after a lavish Ball.) Curiously Visconti puts more emphasis on the old Prince's trip from Palermo to his estate in the country than on the battle scenes: the Count's entourage must pass through a checkpoint and Visconti stages this elaborately, with thunderous symphonic music and enormous, sunny landscapes. The aristocrats picnic on the battlefield, as it were, and Visconti, who was a brilliant director of opera, creates huge tapestry-like images swarming with all kinds of human and animal life: he is a master at presenting us with action in which there are multiple centers or focuses of interest: people are grooming horses, girls promenade under little parasols, lackeys jockey for tips, and, yet, all of this teeming activity is organized around the figure of the stiff-backed, implacable, and handsome Prince. There is a plebiscite and Sicily is annexed to the mainland. A messenger from Rome pleads with the Prince to become a senator in the Italian government -- instead, the Prince proposes the vulgar and scheming Don Colagelo for that role. The film ends with a famous 51 minute party and ball sequence that is one of the great glories of Italian film and that has been echoed repeatedly in American movies: the wedding at the beginning of The Godfather, with all its complex cross-currents is a homage to this scene; similarly, the long wedding scene that comprises most of the first half of The Deer Hunter is an effort to translate this sequence into the American vernacular, specifically lower middle class people in an iron and steel town like Bethlehem, Pa. Here Visconti's skill at creating multiple centers of focus while retaining the emphasis on the central character is unparalleled. We see all sorts of things, but the Prince is never far from our thoughts and, indeed, Visconti stations him in most of the images, although sometimes as a small melancholy figure far from the glamorous center of things. Although the party is spectacular and involves fantastically beautiful and gay dance scenes, the brilliance of the sequence inheres in Visconti showing us everything through the perspective of the old Prince -- the skull is everywhere visible and obvious through the voluptuous flesh of the faces of beautiful women's faces. Somehow, the scene is both lushly glamorous and, also, a memento mori. Inexplicably, American critics didn't much like the picture when it was released -- I think it may be too closely concerned with Sicilian and Italian history to interest some people and critics had trouble with Lancaster's dubbing and his mutton-chop whiskers. The movie was cut from 185 minutes to 161 minutes and, generally, panned. The absence of plot probably confused American critics -- the film is about a situation and a dilemma and the story, which is really just a procession of beautiful, complex images, is secondary to the old Prince's situation. But, at its full majestic length, notwithstanding some dull sequences, The Leopard is a film masterpiece and a master-class as well in staging spectacle. (And, sometimes, Visconti just gets "lucky" -- in a scene in which Tancredi impetuously storms out of the palace, hurrying to join Garibaldi's volunteers, the women clutch at him to hold him back and there are many tearful embraces; just as the young man is about to leave the palace, the Prince's huge great Dane, omnipresent throughout much of the picture, runs up the young man and playfully seizes him by the wrist to keep him from leaving.)