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The Leopard

The Leopard(1963)

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Although it is now generally cited as a masterpiece of Italian cinema, Luchino Visconti's The Leopard (1963) has for many years been available in the U.S. only in a version cut by over twenty minutes and dubbed into English. Despite these limitations, it has developed something of a cult following and has long been one of the most requested foreign films on home video. Thankfully, The Criterion Collection's stunning DVD of the 185-minute Italian-language version exceeds all expectations, enabling the film to be appreciated by a new generation of filmgoers.

The Leopard is adapted from the 1958 novel of the same title by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957). Set during the Risorgimento (the movement for the reunification of Italy in the 1860s), the story concerns Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, a Sicilian nobleman who witnesses his way of life changing before his eyes. His favorite nephew Tancredi joins Garibaldi's fighters and later falls in love with Angelica, the beautiful daughter of Don Calogero, a ruthlessly ambitious middle-class politician. While Don Fabrizio recognizes in the young couple's union the political future of Italy, he is increasingly haunted by the decline of his social class and his own mortality.

The novel, which wasn't published until a year after Lampedusa's death, immediately became an international bestseller; its English translation is still in print today. However, at the time The Leopard was widely criticized in leftist circles for its nostalgic view of the nobility. A prince in real life - albeit one who had fallen on hard times - Lampedusa identified personally with the fictional protagonist, who was inspired by his great-grandfather. The film's director Luchino Visconti, who was also a nobleman, clearly identified with both the author and Don Fabrizio. At the same time, as an avowed Marxist, Visconti introduced a concrete historical dimension to the film beyond what was already present in the novel, most notably in the siege of Palermo. So while on the surface the film has all the trappings of a lavish costume drama (a star cast, a spectacular battle sequence, achingly romantic love scenes, lavish dinners and costume balls), it has an underlying scope of vision and an intelligence that most costume dramas lack.

One striking feature of the novel that cannot be reproduced in the film is its narrative voice. While the time of the novel spans from 1860 to 1910 and much of it closely follows Don Fabrizio's thoughts, occasionally the narrator reminds us of the present, using an airplane as a metaphor or alluding to "Eisenstein's baby carriage." During the ball sequence, for instance, Lampedusa writes: "From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was to prove the contrary in 1943."

In one respect, however, Visconti's film is arguably an improvement over the novel: the novel's last two chapters detail the death of Don Fabrizio and, some twenty years later, Angelica's visit to Concetta in their old age. The film closes instead with the magnificent ball sequence, lending the story a tighter dramatic unity. Visconti's film has sometimes been compared to Proust, and not unreasonably so; it is a cornucopia of painterly compositions and faces, but its visual beauty is no mere window-dressing. The film's images - the soldier lying dead in the garden, the mistress that greets Don Fabrizio at the brothel, the Salina family covered in dust during their visit to the chapel at Donnafugata - no matter how fleeting, leave an indelible impact on the viewer. By the end of the film, it seems as if we too have accumulated a lifetime of impressions, paralleling in purely cinematic terms the process of memory treated more explicitly in the novel.

The film represents a peak of achievement for all involved. Visconti's direction displays a remarkable integration of setting, decor, camera movements and blocking of actors. Burt Lancaster not only fits the physical description of Don Fabrizio in the novel, he plays the character convincingly and movingly. Some critics have argued that Lancaster was too young and vital to play the Prince confronting death at the ball; while this is true to a certain extent, it should be kept in mind that in the novel the character does not die until 1888, twenty-six years after the ball sequence takes place. The point is less the immediate proximity of death than Don Fabrizio's acknowledgment of its necessity. Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale are likewise memorable as the opportunistic Tancredi and the carnal Angelica. The many smaller roles that populate the film suggest that not the least of Visconti's talents was his eye for striking physiognomies. Nino Rota's richly melodic score is appropriately nostalgic and operatic. Giuseppe Rotunno's cinematography cannot be praised highly enough; this is, at risk of hyperbole, one of the most beautiful color films ever made. As much as I admire other films by Visconti, particularly Ossessione (1943), La Terra Trema (1948), Senso (1954) and Rocco and His Brothers (1960), to me The Leopard is probably his masterpiece.

Criterion's new high-definition transfer, supervised by Rotunno, was made directly from the Technirama negative. Technirama was a process developed by Technicolor using a horizontally fed 35mm negative like Vistavision. The resulting image, which was 8 perforations wide, was also anamorphically squeezed to produce a wider aspect ratio. The superior clarity and definition of this process works greatly to the film's artistic advantage, giving the painterly compositions of director Visconti and cinematographer Rotunno a sumptuous tactile quality. The richness of color and detail on the DVD are a revelation, especially those accustomed to the murky DeLuxe color process used on the old English-language prints distributed in the U.S. The few imperfections in the surviving film elements are extremely minor and easily forgiven. The mono sound is occasionally distorted, but on the whole it works more than adequately. Peter Cowie's audio commentary track accompanying the film is absorbing and illuminating, as usual; among other things, Cowie helpfully reads a number of passages from the novel and talks at length about Visconti's career in general.

Disc Two contains the bulk of the special features: A Dying Breed, The Making of The Leopard, a set of cogent interviews with the surviving cast and crew; an interview with the film's producer Goffredo Lombardo, who among other things expresses interest in filming a sequel (!); an interview with scholar Millicent Marcus, who provides an excellent overview of Italian history as it relates to the film; and lastly, trailers, newsreel footage, production stills and promotional materials.

A new of transfer the 161-minute English-dubbed version has been included on Disc Three. Now that we have the full Italian-language version, the dubbed version is of interest mainly as a historical curio; hearing Sicilian nobility speaking in American English somehow robs the film of a little of its operatic grandeur, makes it seem like more of a prosaic costume drama. While one would think that hearing Burt Lancaster's own voice would enhance his performance, paradoxically the opposite is true; in the English version he comes off as a little stiff; with the carefully dubbed Italian voice, the vitality of the character shines through more fully, and Lancaster's transformation into Don Fabrizio is complete. The video transfer, while not bad, is no match for the Italian version. Still, I'm glad that Criterion decided to include it.

This is, in my view, the DVD release of the year.

For more information about The Leopard, visit Criterion Collection. To order The Leopard, go to TCM Shopping.

by James Steffen