(Italy/France, 1963, 205 minutes, color, 35mm, in Italian w/English subtitles)
Luchino Visconti was the lion of the Italian cinema. For 30 years, his directorial signature was a stately, often gloomy elegance. Visconti came from the nobility (he was born Count Don Luchino Visconti di Modrone) and spent much of his youth in pursuits almost comically aristocratic, like breeding horses. An encounter with Jean Renoir and the filmmakers of the Popular Front in France changed his life; he became a committed Communist while working as an assistant on Renoir's A Day in the Country and the proletarian masterpiece The Lower Depths in the late 1930's. For the rest of his life, Marxism would be the lens through which Visconti saw Italian life, and the tumult of the classes can be heard, sometimes loud, sometimes muted, in all his films. Back in Italy, Visconti's own proposals for Left-themed films were shut down by the Fascists, and so, in 1942, with a plot cribbed unashamedly from James M. Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, he directed his first feature, Ossessione, a brutal, beautiful film of adultery and crime among the working classes. With Ossessione, and its closely-observed details of the lives of ordinary people, Italian Neorealism was born.
And yet, Visconti's work could never be easily pigeonholed. His films were deliberate, massively serious works, operatic in tone. As he had watched the aristocracy crumble in the face of Facism, so Visconti became intrigued by tales of the decay of institutions and families. His great films of the postwar years, La Terra Trema, Senso, and Rocco and His Brothers are morbidly fascinated with the slow disassembling of Italian society (through allegory in Senso) in the wake of Mussolini and war. Each manages to combine the documentary sensibility of neorealism with Visconti's own epic vision, a nearly impossible creative paradox, but one Visconti was able to sustain with great energy.
Likewise, it is hard to imagine a performer more eerily in tune with Visconti's own personality than Burt Lancaster as Don Fabrizio. Lancaster in middle age is as stony and immobile as he had been electric and animated in youthful ventures like the swashbuckling The Crimson Pirate. Here, his great physical strength is held in reserve, a metaphor for the constant threat of the exercise of power by the wealthy men of influence who watch Italy's convulsions, abstractedly, from on high. His is a dangerous stillness, the old circus acrobat's body a remembrance of past action and a threat of future violence. During the film's extraordinary ballroom scene, one of the most exquisitely articulated long sequences in film, the Prince's basilisk gaze takes in the revels and rituals around him with dispassion, then resignation.
Until the end of his life, Visconti remained a poet of decadence, and an ambivalent mourner at the passing of the aristocracy. The Leopard represented Visconti's epic vision at high tide, but in later masterworks such as The Damned in 1969 and Death in Venice in 1971, the death of privilege continued to weigh heavily on Visconti. Until his death in 1976, brilliant and brooding Luchino Visconti was as comfortable in his titled past as he was pleased that he would be one of the last survivors of that past.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
The following is from an article by Roger Ebert that appeared in the Chicago Sun Times, September 14, 2003: "The Leopard" was written by the only man who could have written it, directed by the only man who could have directed it, and stars the only man who could have played its title character. The first of these claims is irrefutable, because Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a Sicilian aristocrat, wrote the story out of his own heart and based it on his great-grandfather. Whether another director could have done a better job than Luchino Visconti is doubtful; the director was himself a descendant of the ruling class that the story eulogizes. But that Burt Lancaster was the correct actor to play Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, was at the time much doubted; that a Hollywood star had been imported to grace this most European-indeed, Italian-indeed, Sicilian-masterpiece was a scandal.
It was rumored that Lancaster's presence was needed to make the epic production bankable. And when the film finally opened in America, in a version with 40 minutes ruthlessly hacked out by the studio, and with a soundtrack unconvincingly dubbed into English, [Lancaster's own voice was not returned to the soundtrack until the film was restored in 1980.] it was hard to see what Visconti and Lancaster had been thinking of. "Unfortunately Mr. Lancaster does have that blunt American voice that lacks the least suggestion of being Sicilian," wrote Bosley Crowther in the New York Times. Visconti himself was blunt: "It is now a work for which I acknowledge no paternity at all," he said, adding that Hollywood treated Americans "like a public of children."
"It was my best work," Lancaster himself told me sadly, more than 20 years later. "I bought 11 copies of The Leopard because I thought it was a great novel. I gave it to everyone. But when I was asked to play in it, I said, no, that part's for a real Italian. But, lo, the wheels of fortune turned. They wanted a Russian, but he was too old. They wanted Olivier, but he was too busy. When I was suggested, Visconti said, 'Oh, no! A cowboy!' But I had just finished Judgment at Nuremberg, which he saw, and he needed $3 million, which 20th Century-Fox would give them if they used an American star, and so the inevitable occurred. And it turned out to be a wonderful marriage."
What's clear at last is that Lancaster was an inspired casting decision. An actor who always brought a certain formality to his work, who made his own way as an independent before that was fashionable, he embodies the prince as a man who has a great love for a way of life he understands must come to an end. He is a natural patriarch, a man born to have authority. Yet as we meet him, he is aware of his age and mortality, inclined to have spiritual conversations with his friend Father Pirrone, and prepared to compromise in order to preserve his family's fortunes.
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