Saturday, September 13, 2014

Film Review: The Leopard

"The Leopard" *** (out of ****)

The times are a changing in Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard" (1963) starring Burt Lancaster.

The time is 1860. The setting is Sicily. It is the beginning of what is known as the Expedition of the Thousand, a revolt led by Giuseppe Garibaldi, a general, during the Italian Unification process to make Sicily part of Italy.

I tell you this information because the movie doesn't. It is important to know these details, as this is the backdrop of Visconti's film. These historical moments linger in the background of the movie. Characters are responding and reacting to these events. In fact, it takes the movie one hour and 16 minutes to even tell us we are in Sicily and the year is 1860. Luchino, my friend, you should have known better. You are a wonderful filmmaker. One of favorites but sir, you should have known better. I expect more from you.

The movie, as I mentioned already, was directed by Luchino Visconti. It was based on a novel written by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, which had the same title.

Giuseppe was born in Palermo, where the film takes place, to the Prince of Lampedusa, Giulio Maria Tomasi and Beatrice Mastrogiovanni Tasca di Cuto. Visconti was also born into a family of nobility. His father was a Duke and Luchino was formally known as a Count.

The reason I mention any of this information is because it shows these men understood their subject matter. The film follows the Prince of Salina (Lancaster), a man who represents the old establishment in a changing world. The Prince and his kind are on their way out. There will be a new Italy ruled by a new generation with new ideas, a fresh perspective. Their "change" may lead Italy to ruin, no one can tell at this point, but, either way Italy has turned a new chapter. Men like the Prince can either resist at every turn or accept events as they occur. The Prince tries to accept the changing tide while also accepting he will not change with it. He is a man who knows who he is, understands the way the new world views him and accepts his ways are now old-fashion. He doesn't have much of a say anymore.

The Prince has a nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), who wants to help fight for change and joins Garibaldi army, putting him at odds with his uncle, but, being family, the Prince doesn't allow the issue to divide them.

At the beginning of the movie, The Prince, known as Don Fabrizio, spends most of his time with a priest, Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli). There time together and conversations, for me are some of the best moments of the film. The priest is not a member of the nobility, and while he will admit, the rich aren't bad people, they are merely, well, different. What is important to the rich, he says, he not important to everyday people. Their concerns, to normal people, are irrelevant to the concerns of others.

For the first hour or so of this three hour movie, the story centers on politics, not directly but indirectly. Some of these scenes work, like the scene I described with the priest, but much of it doesn't. The problem is the entire movie is told from the perspective of the rich there is no counter arguement being made. No one would dare speak back to Don Fabrizio. The priest could have been this character so could have Tancredi, but no.

This would have been important to the story because it would help set up the time period better. It would help put things into perspective. It would have helped me care more about the story.

Other scenes involve Don Fabrizio arranging a marriage between Tancredi and Angelica Sedara (Claudia Cardinale), after Fabrizio has learned his own daughter is in love with Tancredi.

Soon the story centers on the theme of immortality. This concept is illustrated in various lines of dialogue but most prominently in the movie's final sequence, which last 45 minutes, at a ball. It all starts when Fabrizio, feeling tired and restless, goes off in a study to be by himself and notices a picture on the wall of a man on his deathbed and his family surrounding him. Is this what it will be like when he dies Fabrizio wonders? There is nothing left for him to do but die.

Moments of his youth come rushing back to him when Angelica asks him for a dance at the ball. Their waltz together is one of the most sensual dance sequences put to film, forget about the Al Pacino sequence in "Scent of A Woman" (1992).

On a technical level "The Leopard" is beautifully made. The movie simply looks gorgeous. The costume and production designs, the cinematography, the music, the performance by Lancaster, it is all first rate. But, emotionally I wasn't really drawn into this story. I wasn't as involved in this film as I have been in other Visconti films such as "The Damned" (1969), "The Innocent" (1979) and "Ludwig" (1973) . Visconti is an absolute craftsmen and I can't deny the quality of the work, I was just left feeling the movie needed more of an emotional pull. I wish the movie would have told us more about the politics of the time, giving the working class a voice, establish the time period better. But, I can wish and hope from now until doomsday. It won't change a thing. As it stands "The Leopard" is worth seeing.

The movie won the palm d'or at the Cannes Film Festival but opened to mixed reviews in America when first release. Now, the movie is regarded as one of Visconti's best. If you do chose to watch the movie know there are currently two versions in circulation. There is the original Italian version which runs three hours and five minutes and a shorter English dubbed version. I have seen both. This review however comes after seeing the Italian version. This is the version I recommend seeing even though you will not hear Lancaster deliver his lines (a shame).