Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Leopard is one of those Italian masterpieces we've heard Martin Scorsese wail about
for twenty five years, a film that could not be seen in a decent, uncut copy. Criterion has not only
resurrected this acclaimed classic but presents it in two versions and with some excellent
extras, in a handsome if costly 3-disc presentation. Considering the work that had to go into this
show, it's worth the premium.
1860. Garibaldi invades to free Sicily from the Bourbons while the patriarch of the
landed Salina family Prince Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) tries to keep his family from panicking.
His favorite nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon) runs off to fight with Garibaldi's Red Shirts.
As the revolution cools into negotiations between existing power centers and fake plebescites are held,
Tancredi returns to become a Royal officer. The Salinas seem posed to blend their artistocratic
bloodline with the new bourgeois through the romance of Tancredi and the beautiful Angelica
Sedara (Claudia Cardinale), daughter of the nouveau riche Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa). The
future seems to be well in hand, with Tancredi preparing to run for public office
in the new republic, and Don Fabrizio readying himself and his feudal system to retreat to the
shadows of history.
Here's the picture that ambitious filmmakers looking to be taken seriously have been imitating for
40 years - Coppola in
The Godfather, Cimino in
The Deer Hunter, Leone in Duck You Sucker. Before this, the supremely confident Luchino
Visconti made Senso, set in the same period but in the North of Italy, but little can match the
opulence on view. All of its pride and decadence of the world of the Sicilian nobility is captured in
from their clothes to the fabric on the furniture and the walls. Unlike some "painstaking" productions,
this one breathes an accuracy that places one in a different world, and makes us believe that
Burt Lancaster speaks Italian and comes from a long line of blooded nobles. Erich Von Stroheim would
Visconti's style is an effortless blend of careful masters, trucking shots and closeups that never look
like scenes filmed for ordinary assembly. Instead of being overwhelmed by the decor our attention is always
focused on the human drama. Lancaster's Don Fabrizio is much more flexible than he looks, and he admires
and envies his surrogate son Tancredi even as he doubts the younger man's commitment. The revolution
(risorgimento) really amounts to a uniting of Italy into a distinct nation, and Don Fabrizio doesn't resist
or run away. Knowing that a real revolution that deprives the nobles of their land and titles is unlikely,
he waits for the right cues to reassert his power.
As it turns out, he doesn't really have to. Tancredi fights in the battle for Palermo (a brilliantly shot
series of barricade charges in the dusty streets) but the revolution soon changes into a simple accomodation
of interests. The emerging class is the moneyed business interest represented by the rich Don Calogero
Sedara (Paolo Stoppa from Miracle in Milan). He can fix elections and nominate politicians, and the
Salinas realize his power even as they patronize the man for his hopeless lack of refinement. The same goes for his
daughter Angelica, a flower who sets both Tancredi and Don Fabrizio aflame. The union of nobles and bourgeoisie
makes for some awkward moments at the dinner table, but Don Frabrizio is nothing if not flexible. Angelica
and Tancredi are the future, and he'll not stand in their way.
Utilizing a monumental budget, Visconti took over Sicilian towns, erecting new building facades when necessary
and dressing hundreds of extras in authentic costumes. Except for the battle scene there's little here in common
with the American style of epic, yet everything we see lets us know that this might as well be a true 1861
at and not some studio recreation. The pagaentry of the formal arrival at the hill-town villa goes on for
minutes and we have to appreciate exactly how the town works, with the music and dust blowing through the
cathedral. Don Fabrizio can go hunting with a commoner friend to discuss the changes that are coming, and
interestingly it's this lowly peasant who considers the family Tancredi is marrying into as
dung compared to the Salinas. Don Fabrizio wisely makes the match that will secure his line's future.
All of the themes and character arcs are resolved but not closed at the giant 35-minute ball that finishes
The Leopard. Tancredi shows his intention to be a closed-minded "republican" noble who looks out
for nobody but himself and his own. Don Fabrizio suddenly becomes aware that the power of his generation is
fading fast and that he himself might be dying. As in a great painting, the petty movements of the characters
mask real events, such as the news of Garibaldi's defeat. The beauty and decadence of the nobles is expressed in
their nightlong party, with Don Fabrizio dancing as the great patriarch whose time has come. Meanwhile, offscreen
and out of sight, some revolutionaries are being executed by the uncaring new order. The future will be the
same, only different.
Burt Lancaster always had the capacity for this kind of dignity and gravity in a role, but it must be said that
he's surprisingly effective - not a single sharktoothed smile or acrobatic stunt here. Claudia Cardinale is
something to swoon over in her incredibly tight-waisted dresses, even though we have to strain to understand the
taboo that's being shattered when she laughs like a mule-driver at the formal dining table. Alain Delon is
dashing and less expressive, although his role is the easiest to follow through direct dialogue. When he changes
allegiances or becomes less idealistic, his words show it right away. Paolo Stoppa is appropriately awkward, and
(Girl With a Suitcase,
Duck You Sucker) an amusingly endearing family
Criterion's DVD of The Leopard continues their untouchable lead when it comes to academically-oriented
film presentations. Only a few years ago critics were complaining that the only way to see this film was in the
cut version a half-hour shorter - and in B&W. Disc one has the full original 185 minute cut in splendid condition.
Originally shot in Technirama (squeezed VistaVision) the image is razor sharp, and it's possible to mull over the
textures of furniture and subtle color shifts in the walls of rooms, while counting the pores on Burt Lancaster's
mustachioed face in closeups. The Italian track is excellent, and the fact that Burt is dubbed by an Italian
voice actor soon stops being distracting.
Peter Cowie provides a full-length commentary. He has enough to say about Visconti and the movie to keep any
foreign film fan happy.
Disc two has the convential extras, the key one being a lengthy set of edited interviews beautifully shot in
16:9. Conversing naturally with the camera are Claudia Cardinale, screenwriter Suso Checci D'Amico, Giuseppe
Rotunno, a relative of author Lampedusa, Piero Tosi and others. Sydney Pollack, then an associate of the late
Burt Lancaster, tells the story from Burt's side.
A second interview lets producer Geoffredo Lombardo give angle on the production. The Leopard
bankrupted his prestigious company Titanus, and that combined with 20th Fox control is what kept the film
out of circulation for so long. Americans didn't see it in its original Italian until 1983. Univ.
of Pennsylvania professor Millicent Marcus provides an excellent overview of the political background of the
Risorgimento and how key events in the uprising are mirrored in the film. Interestingly, Lombardo talks about
the main problem weighing against a sequel, which would probably play like a historical bookend
to another Criterion release,
Salvatore Giuliano: not long after the events of
The Leopard, the Mafia was formed in Sicily.
There's also a selection of trailers and newsreels, and a gallery of stills and artwork ads from various
Disc 3 has the alternate American cut supervised by Lancaster and Pollack back in California. It's a wreck,
because European films dubbed into English always sound phoney (especially after hearing an original
soundtrack) and Burt Lancaster in his own voice remains "Burt," keeping us from accepting him as a Sicilian
aristocrat from 100 years in the past. The American cut is 24 minutes shorter and the color is good, but it
hasn't been given the digital scrubbing of the longer version, enabling us to appreciate Criterion's work all
Visconti's later films
The Damned and
Death in Venice are weak sisters next to
this achievement. Criterion presents it with a tasteful and simple menu and art design. The producer is
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Leopard rates:
Supplements: plenty, see above
Packaging: 3-discs in Keep case
Reviewed: May 26, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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