Talking Pictures

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The Leopard / Il Gattopardo

Posted by keith1942 on November 10, 2010

Italy 1963 

Visconti’s epic drama from the period of the Italian Il Risorgimento has received a further digital restoration. It was screened in 35mm at Il Cinema Ritrovato this year, and was immaculate, with pristine image and colours. It can now be seen in the UK in a High Definition digital transfer, which is almost as good as the 35mm version and one of the best HD versions I have seen. 

The film follows the fortunes of the household of the Prince of Salina, Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) during the tumultuous months when Garibaldi led his ‘thousand redshirts’ in overthrowing the reactionary Kingdom of the Two Scillies. This was the most famous event of the process of unifying Italy. The film enjoys Visconti’s perfectionism in décor, and setting. There is a sweeping music score by Nino Rota. The buildings, the characters and the events all seem compelling historical recreations. Visconti was also a great director of actors, despite or maybe because of being extremely autocratic. This must be Lancaster’s finest performance, and even small parts [including the dog Bendicò] are convincing. This is the Italian language version, so Lancaster’s lines are dubbed. And one slight regret is the absence of his own fine speaking voice. But the Italian language version is far superior to the English-Language [USA] version.


The film adapts the famous and successful novel by Giuseppe di Lampedusa.The author was a Sicilian nobleman and the book clearly relies to a degree on his own family history. The novel’s main protagonist is the Prince of Salina, and the leopard graces his coat of arms. It also symbolises his character in the C19th Sicilian society. A critic commented on the book: ”The crumbling of his estate and his class … is made by him to appear to himself and the reader as the inexorable work of Time and Death, …” (John Gatt-Rutter in Writers & Politics in Modern Italy, 1978). In this sense the book fits in with the famous analysis of Antonio Gramsci, that Il Risorgimento was a ‘passive revolution’. By that he meant one in which the people were left out as the ruling class transformed itself, absorbing the new, rising bourgeoisie. This is the sense of a frequent comment in Italian politics to ‘tranformismo’, a transformation not of the state or the people but of its establishment. The distinction between these two writers is that whilst Gramsci writes with critical frustration, Lampedusa writes from a pessimistic perspective. But it is also one with irony. The book contains numerous references to post-Risorgimento events and a final sardonic chapter set in 1910.  Gatt-Rutter also discusses the point-of-view of the novel, which is predominantly that of the noble Prince of Salina himself. Though there is one chapter seen from the perspective of his confessor Father Pirrone, and the final chapter is after his death.

The film focuses on 1860 to 1862. It follows the novel fairly closely, though it leaves out the final chapters and the frequent references to post-Risorgimento events. The film does retain comments by Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli) on nobles, transferred from a visit to his home village to a break in the journey to the family estates at Donnafugata. And the pre-occupation with death in the penultimate chapter with the Prince on his deathbed in 1883 is caught in the closing scenes of the film, following a lavish ball in Palermo. Visconti’s view of the events of 1860 seems close to that of Gramsci. The plot and dialogue frequently remind us of ‘tranformismo’ as the ruling elite, composed of nobles like the Prince of Salina, accommodate the rising bourgeoisie, such as don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa). This class collaboration is sealed in the engagement of the Prince’s [poor] nephew Tancredi Alain Delon) to [rich] Sedara’s daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). And one function of the immensely long ball scene is to publicly recognise this union.

At the time and since there have been numerous criticisms of Visconti’s film and the stance on this earlier period. Many comments compared the film to the original novel and identified nostalgia for the vanished life of the Italian aristocracy [into which Visconti himself was born]. It is also the film about which some critics started to use the word ‘decadent’, critically devaluing Visconti’s later films in comparison to an earlier more radical period.

Like the character of Visconti himself I think the film has contradictory qualities. The emphasis on the lives and activities of the elite in this time of momentous change is clearly there. There is little screen time devoted to the ordinary working and people, either urban based or peasantry. This makes for a strong contrast with the earlier classic film on Il Risorgimento, 1860, directed by Giusseppe Blasetti in 1933. That film is dominated by the rebellious peasantry of Sicily and to a lesser degree the volunteer ‘redshirts’ who fought the battles that led to the collapse of the Bourbon rule.

However, the film of The Leopard does address the nature of the revolution more strongly than the novel. Visconti and his team have inserted an impressive sequence depicting the Battle of Palermo. We see the enthusiastic redshirts: the Bourbon mercenaries who shoot civilians under orders of the secret police: and the men and women of the city who flock to support the ‘thousand’ and to wreak vengeance on the agents of the reactionary regime.

In the film as in the book Tancredi has joined Garibaldi’s expedition in the mountains and fights in the battles against his own class. He does this because as he tells Don Fabrizio, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” This is an epigram repeated a number of times in both book and film and expropriated for his own use by the Prince. In both versions Tancredi sticks to his morals [or lack of them]. When the Piedmontese military suppresses Garibaldi and his men Tancredi joins the Piedmontese army. As his political ambitions rise, he abandons a tentative interest in Fabrizio’s daughter Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi) and sets out to woo Sedara’s potentially wealthy daughter, the beautiful Angelica. Sedara, who has already made a fortune, including buying up land that once belonged to the Salina family, is happy to endow Angelica, and Tancredi’s ambitions as his entree to elite society.

The book provides ironic comments on this behaviour from an omniscient narrative voice. In the film Visconti uses mise en scène, camera and editing. In one scene the Salina family arrives at Donnafugata for their summer retreat. They sit in the local church stalls covered in the dust of the journey. The camera tracks along this line of ghostly figures, seemingly prefiguring their social death as a declining class.

And there is pointed cut as we approach the long final sequence of the film. There is a shot of the peasants working in the fields, the music of the ball rises on the soundtrack, and suddenly we see the couples whirling round the floor at the elite gala in Palermo. This vividly presents the gulf between one class and another. The theme of ‘tranformismo’ also dominates the ball. The key guest is Colonel Pallavico. And his hosts are eager to congratulate him as the man who shot and suppressed Garibaldi’s further expedition to liberate the Papal States. In the welter of reactionary self-congratulation is the representative of the new dominant class, Sedara.

It is at the ball’s conclusion that Visconti and his writer make their most powerful comment on this class coalition. Don Fabrizio walks home from the ball, gazing at the stars and thinking of the relieving embrace of death. The final shot of the film shows him disappearing into the shadows of a Palermo street. Meanwhile Tancredi, Angelica and Sedara travel home in one of the carriages. As dawn approaches volley’s of shot ring out. We hear only the sound, but we and the passengers in the carriage know that it is Colonel Pallavico and his men executing the remnants of the Garabaldini. In the end an iron heel achieves the passivity of the ordinary people. So it seems to me that both visually and through additions to the plot that Visconti and his team offer a somewhat subversive version of Lampedusa’s tale.

However, this is not straightforward subversion. John Gatt-Rutter further comments on the novel, “… such is the power of the characterisation that Fabrizio’s presence tends to fill the whole novel and overwhelm it, …” This is equally a characteristic of the film. Lancaster’s superb performance dominates the film from start to finish. And it is his world that is beautifully re-created and which provides the visual pleasures of the film. So there appears to be a contradiction in this epic between the politics of comment and aspects of its visualisation of story and characters. Audience assumptions and experience are likely to be important in how they read this film.


The restoration has been carried our by a number of associates, importantly the Cineteca di Bologna and The Film Foundation.

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