powered by AFI
Luchino Visconti's The Leopard (1963) is a landmark of Italian cinema. A meditation on time, history, and the passing of a privileged social class and its way of life, the film is a sumptuous and visionary effort at reconstructing the past. Set mainly against the background of Garibaldi's military expeditions from 1860 to 1862, which paved the way for the unification of Italy, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel became an international bestseller upon its publication in 1958. Producer Goffredo Lombardo, head of Italy's Titanus Films, bought the rights to the book and offered the project to Visconti. A self-professed Communist, Visconti was fascinated by Lampedusa's novel and wanted to defend it against its leftist detractors by making a film that would emphasize the theme of trasformismo -- the co-opting of revolutionary movements by the ruling class. This theme is expressed in a line spoken by the opportunistic young aristocrat Tancredi, played in the film by Alain Delon: "Everything must change so that everything can stay the same."
The director set about preparing the film with his usual meticulousness, immersing himself once again in a historical period to which he had already devoted a great film, Senso (1954). Visconti and his screenwriters decided to follow Lampedusa's book faithfully, except for two major changes. They added a sequence of Garibaldi's victory at Palermo and omitted the ending of the novel, which moves forward in time to show the death of the main character, Prince Fabrizio Salina, and the decadence of his family. Visconti chose instead to use the long sequence of a ball to intimate the future fates of his aristocratic characters. "What I wanted to tell," the director said, "was the story of a man and of the decline of a society, through his consciousness of it, within a specific historic atmosphere." To ensure this atmosphere, Visconti insisted on filming the entirety of The Leopard -- interiors as well as exteriors -- in real locations, refurbishing them as needed to recreate the 1860s. Most of the film would be shot in Sicily, except for the interiors of the Prince's palace at Donnafugata, which were done at a palace in Ariccia (near Rome).
Obliged to seek American financing for what would be an enormously expensive production (the final cost was estimated at about four and a half million dollars), Lombardo struck a deal with 20th Century-Fox. As part of the agreement, The Leopard was obliged to take on an American star. Visconti originally wanted either Nikolai Cherkasov (from Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, 1944) or Laurence Olivier, neither of whom was available in any case. The director was outraged when he learned that Lombardo, behind his back, had gone to America to secure the services of Burt Lancaster. (Fox also suggested Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and Spencer Tracy, according to Lancaster biographer Kate Buford.) Resentful that Lancaster, whom he belittled to others as a "cowboy" or "American gangster," had been imposed on him, Visconti received the star coldly on the latter's arrival in Sicily. Left to his own devices, and determined to do well in a role that was a radical departure for him, Lancaster spent a month becoming friendly with the remnants of the local aristocracy, soaking up their mannerisms, only to conclude, at the start of shooting in May 1962, that the imperious Visconti himself (fourth child of the Duke of Modrone) was the ideal model for Prince Salina.
Visconti's commitment to authenticity impressed Lancaster. Rehearsing a scene in which his character was supposed to open a dresser drawer, the actor did so to find it filled with tailored silk shirts. "Does the camera see these?" he asked cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, who replied, "No." Lancaster asked Visconti why they were there. "You're the prince," the director told him. "Is for you to touch." For the actor, this incident (recounted by Gary Fishgall in Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster) came to symbolize the lengths to which Visconti would go to recreate the atmosphere of the period as the real Prince Salina would have experienced it, enabling Lancaster to immerse himself in his role.
A turning point in the relationship between director and star came at the beginning of work on the ball sequence. Visconti wanted to start with the climax: the Prince's waltz with the beautiful Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), a rich bourgeois' daughter who is about to marry into the noble family. Lancaster, who had injured his knee, went through a first take less than smoothly. Furious, Visconti whisked Cardinale off the set for a drink, saying within earshot of the cast and crew, "We'll come back when Mr. Lancaster is ready." An hour later, the actor sent word, and the scene went off perfectly, Lancaster managing to conceal his pain and humiliation. Later, he had a private conversation with Visconti during which raised voices could be heard from outside the room. What was said is not known, but the result was a new understanding and respect between the two men that grew into a lifelong friendship.
Production lasted seven months. Over a month was devoted to the ball sequence alone (it had to be filmed at night, because of the summer heat), with results that fully justified Visconti's perfectionism. The ball is one of the great set pieces in cinema, an astoundingly fluid and complex sequence in which all the themes of The Leopard converge, together with the three classes of the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, and the military. According to screenwriter Suso Cecchi D'Amico, "At heart, the novel is the story of the first time that different social classes mix." The ball sequence brilliantly dramatizes this historical moment, staging it as a spectacle that unfolds under the view of the pensive Prince, who, loathing the shallow, self-satisfied guests parading before him, retires privately to contemplate his own death.
Visconti prepared a 205-minute cut, which he whittled down to 185 minutes for the premiere at the 1963 Cannes festival, where The Leopard won the Palme d'Or. The film went on to worldwide commercial and critical success, though not in the United States, where 20th Century-Fox released it in a 165-minute version with inferior color. The English dubbing was supervised by Sydney Pollack, who pronounced the result "lousy," despite the advantage of Lancaster speaking his own lines; he is voiced by another actor in the Italian version.
Dubbed or not, for Lancaster, it was the role of a lifetime. Despite Visconti's initial misgivings, Lancaster inhabits the part so perfectly that it's impossible to imagine any other actor being better in it. He came away from The Leopard with a newly mature sense of artistic purpose. Of Visconti, he said, "He opened for me a new world and a new way of doing things."
Producer: Goffredo Lombardo
Director: Luchino Visconti
Screenplay: Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Luchino Visconti, based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Film Editing: Mario Serandrei
Art Direction: Mario Garbuglia
Music: Nino Rota
Cast: Burt Lancaster (Prince Fabrizio Salina), Claudia Cardinale (Angelica), Alain Delon (Tancredi), Paolo Stoppa (Don Calogero), Rina Morelli (Maria Stella), Lucilla Morlacchi (Concetta), Romolo Valli (Father Pirrone), Pierre Clmenti (Francesco Paolo), Giuliano Gemma (Garibaldian general), Serge Reggiani (Don Ciccio).
by Chris Fujiwara