Friday, December 9, 2011

MM Movie Review: The Leopard

As we have recently seen the passing of the 150th anniversary of Italian unification, it is fitting to take a look at a movie that covered this period on the island of Sicily. It is a uniquely Sicilian story and yet much of the drama could have unfolded in almost any part of Italy as the long established aristocracy came face to face with the wave of nationalism and the forces of the revolution. I have often recommended this movie to people trying to understand the many aspects of the Risorgimento. Yet, it is not a simplistic movie. There are few angels or demons but it reveals the complex nature of the situation Italy (and in this case Sicily) found itself in during the revolutionary period. Considering who was behind it, Luchino Visconti (a communist homosexual), I was surprised by what a downright reactionary flavor it had almost throughout. Yet, Visconti, or more properly Luchino Visconti di Modrone, Count of Lonate Pozzolo, was also an aristocrat and is said to have modeled the prince whom the film revolves around after his own grandfather.

“The Leopard” is an epic film in every way; very grand, very colorful, very intricate and very long (depending on the version you see, very, very long). Visconti disowned the shortened American version for cutting out scenes he considered vital, but having only ever seen the Italian version I cannot speak to that. Watching the film you get an idea of how the Risorgimento was viewed by almost every level of society and the sometimes differing views people within each strata had about it. It is, however, the story of one aging aristocrat, Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, throughout this tumultuous period and so the emphasis is naturally on him. Because the Prince (played by American actor Burt Lancaster) is such a compelling character, the viewer cannot help but identify and sympathize with him. As a result, many of Visconti’s fellow radical leftists denounced the film when it came out as being reactionary and putting the old ruling class of Sicily in far too favorable a light. That, of course, is far too simplistic a view. Almost every side is shown in this movie, good and bad aspects alike. Almost no one is entirely pure and yet even the less palatable characters are usually shown as at least having idealistic motivations.

The title comes from the leopard on the coat of arms of the Salina family and the film opens with Prince Fabrizio, the worldly but wise patriarch, leading his family in prayer. They live in palaces, a country estate in the summer months and another as their primary residence in a ramshackle Sicilian village. The nationalist revolution sweeping Italy finally comes to intrude on this family which traces its ancestry back to ancient Rome. Garibaldi and his red shirts are invading Sicily, rallying the discontented to overthrow the Bourbon kingdom. The Prince realizes that the way of life he has always known is about to change forever and there is nothing he can do to stop it. “If we want things to stay as they are, things have to change”. There is a great sense throughout of everyone, from the highest to the lowest, being swept along by the irresistible tide of history; like it or not, revolution is coming. The Prince loves his wife, though after a moment of weakness he admits to his friend and confessor Father Pirrone that it is more of a devoted alliance than a romance. She crosses herself before every embrace and, the frustrated Prince says, despite all their years of marriage and the children they’ve had together he’s never seen the naval of his very proper and pious wife. He is devoted to his children but realizes that the future of the family will not be in their hands.

That duty will fall to his well-born but rather immature nephew Tancredi. He is a young man looking for adventure with illustrious ancestry but little money as his own father squandered the family fortune. Because of that, he needs his uncle Fabrizio as much as his uncle needs him to carry on the family line into the new Italy that is being created. Tancredi, eager for glory and excitement, rushes off to join Garibaldi as he battles his way across Sicily. Bourbon troops execute people while trying to fend off the red shirts, yet some people still support them. Many embrace the revolutionary cause, others look to their traditional leaders for guidance. Prince Fabrizio decides that they will be ruined if they oppose the coming new order and that they must come to an accommodation with the revolutionaries. It also means he will have to stoop to ingratiate himself with the rising middle class, embodied by the comical social climber Don Calogero, mayor of the local town of Donnafugata. Because of the mayor’s astuteness in taking advantage of imposed land reforms he is one of the wealthiest men in the area and set to grow richer. The Prince recognizes that the fortune of this funny little man could sustain his own family in the future.

Tancredi returns, no longer a red shirted revolutionary but as an officer in the more respectable royal army of King Victor Emmanuel II. He is more than willing to marry the daughter of Don Calogero, a stunning but unpolished girl named Angelica (played by Claudia Cardinale) because she is positively gorgeous and in the interests of his family Prince Fabrizio agrees and arranges the match though it is extremely painful for him to do so. When the unification of Sicily with the rest of Italy is voted on, the Prince (after just a hint of hesitation) votes “yes” knowing that most will follow his example and do the same. The mayor later proclaims that the vote was unanimous, however, in one of my favorite scenes, the Prince’s huntsman admits that he had voted “no”. He understood the reasons Don Fabrizio had for voting “yes” but, Spaniards or not, the old Bourbon Royal Family had been good to him and he said to have voted “yes” would have made him feel like a traitor to their memory. Tensions rise but are soon smoothed over. The Prince, who one would expect to be the reactionary, bent with the wind out of self-preservation while his lesser, who had nothing to lose, could afford to be defiant. The Prince admires his loyalty but is nonetheless sure he is doing the right thing. He comforts himself that, at least this new state will be a monarchy (yes!).

The Prince goes ahead with arranging the wedding festivities for his nephew and his beautiful, bourgeois bride. He is aware of his own age, that his day is passing and the transition from the old to the new Italy is seen in what he goes through, his trials, his adjustments and his interactions with others. There is a huge amount that is “said” in this movie of which very little is actually spoken, but you see it all played out like a grand painting that conveys a deep message without saying a word. Don Fabrizio knows what he must do and he does it, conveying mostly with his eyes and body language how difficult it is for him. He was a man used to being in charge, being the final authority and has to come to grips with the rise of a new power system. He finds Don Calogero as ridiculous as anyone and yet he must tolerate him. He finds his daughter Angelica as desirable as his nephew (and every other male that lays eyes on her) and yet he knows he can do nothing about it. In his prime he certainly could have, and we are led to believe he still *could* but such a thing would be out of the question. It is only noticeable because, Angelica knows it too.

Another very interesting part of the movie was when a government official, looking very out of place in Sicily, arrives from Turin for rather flimsy reasons. The Prince keeps him at arms length until the purpose of his visit is revealed. King Victor Emmanuel II wishes all sections of the new Kingdom of Italy to be represented in his government and Don Fabrizio was recommended to be appointed Senator. The Prince is rather repelled by the idea of becoming a statesman. He would be happy to accept another title but not an actual job. The envoy is perplexed by his attitude, having in the course of his visit become very impressed with the strength, sincerity and wisdom of the Prince. However, although Don Fabrizio would not stand opposed to the tide of history and was willing to accept the new kingdom, he was not willing to participate in it and, as he said, would be unable to function in such an environment, never having learned the arts of self-deception and double-talk required of politicians. The envoy pleads with him to reconsider, pointing out how much he could help lift Sicily out of the backward and impoverished state he found her in. The Prince informs him that the Sicilians don’t want to be helped, seeing themselves as always perfect. The envoy begs him to reconsider, sincerely admiring the man, but the Prince can only laugh off his lack of understanding of the Sicilian people and their local culture. Some things will never change. The Prince then, surprisingly (yet not so surprisingly) recommends none other than the ridiculous Don Calogero for the position, saying he possesses just the right qualities for a politician.

The final big scene of the movie is a grand ball, with all of the very finest in traditional, Old World aristocratic opulence, which lasts an astounding 45 minutes. You have to see it to believe it. It is a visually stunning sequence and I’ve never seen any movie that stuck with one setting for so long, following several conservations as a way of wrapping up all of the loose ends of the film and (here is why you must pay close attention) doing it all in spite of the fact that no one is really talking about what they seem to be talking about. It is just brilliantly done and it is not buried, if you have been paying attention throughout the movie you will easily pick up on the unsaid messages being conveyed. What is difficult is believing that such a thing in one *very* long sequence could be pulled off successfully and yet it is. Again, I’ve never seen anything like it. The realism is also no piece of artistic mastery, actual Sicilian aristocratic families were brought in to play the part of the horde of grandly dressed and bejeweled guests who represent the old elite of the Bourbon kingdom that is no more. Yet, some things go on just as they always had.

I will stress again that this is not a movie for “casual viewing”. It is very long and while there are not a lot of complex plot points or anything like that, if you don’t pay attention you will miss out on the innumerable subtleties that make this a great movie rather than just a good one. In case anyone cannot tell, I love this movie. It is an artistic masterpiece. The settings are spectacular, the buildings, the landscape, the background of life in Sicily is done perfectly. The actors are pretty much all top notch (hard to go wrong with Burt Lancaster) and I say that because they all successfully convey so much of the “feeling” of this movie just in their eyes, their expressions and their body language. I think it is a great film, and I’m not alone in that as it won a pile of awards. When it comes to understanding the Risorgimento, I tell people to just watch “The Leopard” and you will come away with a pretty good idea of it. Just so there are no false expectations, it is not a history lesson, it is not hitting you over the head with, “Here’s what happened, these guys were good, these guys were bad,” and so on. The fact that so many radical leftists condemned it as reactionary or a right-wing love letter says something to recommend it. For what it was trying to do, the time, place and people it was trying to convey, I think it hit the mark perfectly. For those who complain that I only talk about movies I hate, here is one from the opposite end. “The Leopard” -I highly recommend it.


  1. I've heard of this film courtesy of Monty Python. There's a sketch where they have a policeman arresting people impersonating film directors, and he goes off on a lecture about Luchino Visconti. It was amusing.

    Have you ever seen the French comedy film (I'm sure it was either dubbed or subtitled to English) "Les Visiteurs", or "The Visitors"?
    It's about this knight that time travels to our time, only to discover that France is no longer a kingdom! So he endeavors to return to his own time. His squire however likes the new system. Neither side is portrayed too negatively in their arguments, but it is a comedy film. It stars Jean Reno and Christian Clavier.

  2. Is there anything Monty Python hasn't covered? I've not heard of "Les Visiteurs" but it sounds like an interesting concept. I don't have the most extensive foreign film collection in the world, off-hand I can only think of one French film on the shelf, "Indochine" which is obviously not set in France. I have more Italian films but most of those are spaghetti westerns -so obviously not set in Italy and a couple of German war movies.

  3. It is truly a splendid film, although rather sad. Have you read the novel?

  4. No, I very, very seldom read novels though in this case it is tempting. Have you? I've never even seen it and I'd be concerned I could never find the time -judging by how long the movie is I wonder if the novel would dwarf "War & Peace" in size.

  5. I read it a number of years ago. I actually don't recall it being inordinately long, although I found it more depressing than the film. An overview here:

  6. Yikes. Life is depressing enough without having to read books that do it for you. I didn't think the movie was that sad overall (of course it was in that it was the passing of an era, like "Gone With the Wind" or that) but for me it was more a case of feeling sad for certain characters but getting the overall impression that, for the most part, life will go on and things won't be all that bad.

  7. That is basically the feeling I had from the film, too, but as I said the book was more heavy-going. The film is more cheerful thanks to the magnificent visuals; the scenery and the glamor of the old order, and it also cuts out the dreariest parts at the end.

    Of course, it probably didn't help that I read the end parts of the novel involving the death of the prince and so on while becoming faint on a long airplane trip;-) Or maybe I should blame the illness on the novel?

  8. Any long airplane trip would do it for me :-0 Stuck in a missile crammed full of people for hours on end with a drunk or exhausted pilot -no thank you! I will stick to a very large ship for crossing the oceans. If anything goes wrong, I can swim alot better than I can fly.


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