Friday, June 10, 2016
Director: Luchino Visconti
Writers: Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Luchino Visconti
Photography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Music: Nino Rota
Editor: Mario Serandrei
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon, Paolo Stoppa, Serge Reggiani, Leslie French, Terence Hill, Lucilla Morlacchi
Whole warehouses of imposing magnificence are packed into director and cowriter Luchino Visconti's treatment of fictional 19th-century Sicilian aristocrat Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster), based on the highly regarded novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (which I don't know). It's the historical eve of the Italian aristocracy's demise, in 1860, and the prince is coming to terms with the coming of modern ways, "after 25 centuries," as he puts it. Civil war rages outside his very doors—the corpse of a royalist soldier is found in his garden in the first scene—and he really has no other choice but to let go of the past. The magnificence comes by the bale: The Leopard boasts one of Nino Rota's best scores, its production design and costuming vibrate with sumptuous wealth, and its original running time pushed closer to four hours than three. In the movies, long running times have stood in for self-evident seriousness since at least Gone With the Wind, if not Intolerance.
In fact, The Leopard is another one of those highly acclaimed movies found on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? that comes with its own tortured version history, joining The Magnificent Ambersons, Metropolis, The Rules of the Game, and too many others to exist now in compromised twilight versions, living in the shadow of variously unknowable originals. The Leopard started at 205 minutes but after it got a lot of bad reviews the American distributor took out 40 minutes or so. Later it all evened out with a 185-minute Italian-language version, found in the Criterion package, based on Visconti's preferred cut (there was also a 195-minute version that played at Cannes). Just for kicks, or for those in a hurry, the Criterion edition also includes the 161-minute American cut. Both Lancaster and the magnificent Claudia Cardinale are dubbed in the Italian version, but Lancaster's voice can be heard in the short version.
I have to say it's another great monument of cinema that leaves me mostly indifferent. Part of that may be due to an instinctive lack of sympathy for the historical landed classes. The movie is set at a time when the merchant classes of the various clans of Italy were beginning to form into a nation, but not without spasmodic strife and bloodshed lasting more than a century—continuing still, in many ways. The conflicts were further complicated by the earliest strains of Marxist / socialist revolutionary fervor. Given this, what can a prince of the realm do anyway? It's too early to sing for a rock 'n' roll band.
I turned to Roger Ebert for some help on this one, and found a little. Ebert focuses on the casting of Burt Lancaster, which was controversial. Visconti originally wanted the Soviet actor Nikolai Cherkasov. The producers wanted more star power. When Cherkasov was unavailable, the producers (according to Wikipedia) told Visconti his choices were Burt Lancaster, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, or Spencer Tracy, and then went ahead and picked Lancaster for him. Obviously, that had to be aggravating for Visconti, but he and Lancaster ended up working well together. All that ever really registered on me was how well Lancaster fits—it's a classic case of a performer disappearing into a role. He never seems like he doesn't belong (the reviewers who ridiculed his appearance were way off-base), and before long he is taking on a subtle force that seems to be the character more than the player. (He also has one of my favorite lines in all movies, talking about love dismissively: "Flames for a year, followed by ashes for 30.")
Ebert praises Lancaster highly and takes it even further in his discussion of the final ballroom scene, which plays nearly an hour and reaches unmistakable heights (mostly occasioned for me, again, by the music, the waltzes and mazurkas). "Visconti, confident that Lancaster can suggest all of the shading of the Prince's feelings, extends the scene until we are drawn fully into it," Ebert writes. "He creates one of those sequences for which we go to the movies: We have grown to know the Prince's personality and his ideas, and now we enter, almost unaware, into his emotions. The cinema at its best can give us the illusion of living another life, and that's what happens here."
Well, maybe. This is going to have to be a case of "I report, you decide." While I agree Lancaster's performance is surprisingly good—one of his best features as an actor was how often he could be surprisingly good—the picture is still a little too sympathetic to the aristocracy for my taste. Not that it's even all that sympathetic. Visconti was an avowed Marxist, after all, and a good many from the upper class here are obvious knaves, fools, and/or ninnies. But Prince Salinas is not—he is anything but. And though Lancaster is very good at making the character real and alive, I'm not quite ready yet for superhuman nobility to be this sympathetic. I'm sure that's my own problem.