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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Leopard: Criterion Collection
The Leopard: Criterion Collection
Criterion // PG // June 8, 2004
List Price: $49.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Matthew Millheiser | posted June 1, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie

The simple act of watching a film like The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) becomes one of those mesmerizing cinematic experiences that haunts and enriches the viewer from beginning to end. Based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the film is everything one thinks of when the term "epic" is bandied about: beautifully shot (with some of the most sumptuous cinematography ever presented onscreen), overflowing with opulence and grandeur, populated with colorful, charismatic characters, set in a romanticized time period that no longer exists, and with a running time slightly over three-hours during which director Luchino Visconti skillfully handles the scope and sweep of Lampedusa's novel.

The film takes place during the heart of the Italian Risorgimento, a time of nineteenth-century social upheaval in which the Italian states rebelled against the existing aristocratic order to form a unified and democratic Italy. Burt Lancaster plays Don Fabrizio, the proud yet aging Prince of Salina, emblematic of the old society and yet fully aware that his way-of-life is slowly fading into oblivion. His nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) fights for Garibaldi and the rebellious factions, yet his motives aren't entirely altruistic. He believes in the cause, perhaps, but he also does what will keep him "on top" of whatever society emerges. He represents the changing face of Italy, the transition between aristocracy and democracy, but his self-serving machinations are indicative of the egocentric elements that drive the shift in power structures.

Don Fabrizio, all too aware of this, arranges a marriage for Tancredi with Angelica Sedara (Claudia Cardinale), the jaw-droppingly ravishing daughter of Don Calogero Sedara, a scheming "up-and-comer" in the new regime. The marriage is certainly political in nature, an old-fashioned consolidation of power in order to keep the "right" people in positions of power. Contrasting with the youthful flirtations between Tancredi and Angelica is the loveless marriage between Don Fabrizio and his own wife, a marriage of manners, appearances, and duty that is entirely without passion and life. Fabrizio remarks to his priest how he has had numerous children with the woman, yet has yet to see her navel. This is of course a rather bawdy assertion, especially to a clergyman, yet indicative of the stilted emptiness of their mannered relationship. Yet when Don Fabrizio first lays eyes on Angelica, it's too obvious that in her he sees the type of woman that he should have been with. Angelica is utterly beautiful, yet she is warm, graceful, elegant, and passionate. A symbol of an age past and a dying era, transitioning into a new and uncertain time in which the traditional ways must make way for new, more liberal and uncertain ideals.

The Leopard won the coveted Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival in its year of submission, but the film was met with popular indifference when it was released in the United States. Cut by nearly half-an-hour in running time and mostly redubbed into English (Burt Lancaster's dub was his actual voice), the film failed to resonate with viewers. Certainly a case could have been made to market The Leopard as a new "Gone With The Wind"-styled epic. The films are, on the surface, pretty similar: they take place during the same time, during a period of social and political upheaval, and are expensive, sweeping epic films that featuring staggering scenes of cinematic wonderment. But perhaps the Italian setting and intricate subtleties of Visconti's film seemed too distant for American viewers. Regadless, The Leopard is a magnificent motion picture that doesn't come up as often as it should when people discuss the great cinematic epics of all time. The Criterion DVD will hopefully change the grievous oversight, as its beautiful presentation of the film and copious amount of supplemental material presents an irresistible package for cinema lovers.

The DVD

The Leopard comes in a mammoth three-disc special edition, providing for a host of goodies for the discriminating fans of Visconti's epic.

Video:

The Leopard is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.21:1, and has been anamorphically enhanced for your widescreen-viewing happiness. All I can say about this transfer is: Wow. What a gorgeous looking film, meticulously restored and beautifully transferred by the wizards at Criterion. Giuseppe Rotunno, the film's original director of photography, supervised the new transfer as well. In any regard, the film looks absolutely luminous. Colors are rich and vibrant, with fine chromatic spread, natural looking flesh tones, and deep blacks. The picture sports a reasonably detailed image, although fine image detail is slightly lacking (and certainly understandable for a forty-year-old film.) This three-hour movie is housed on a single dual-layered DVD, but I noticed no instances of compression noise or pixellation. Other than few scenes that display some very minor speckling, the print is remarkably clean, resulting in a smooth, stable, beautifully rendered picture.

Audio:

The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0, and as such presents a fine if inherently limited audio experience. Dialog levels sound somewhat reasonable if a little "boxy", and the score, while definitely lacking in range, remains faithful and peppy. There are no discernable noises, hiss, distortions, and pops on the soundtrack. Overall, the soundtrack is satisfactory and pleasant. Sure some six-channel bombast would have been extremely welcome, especially during the ball or battle scenes, but here we have it as it was originally heard, and the result is quite acceptable.

Extras:

Disc One

Well here we are, it's a day that ends with a "y", which means we have another Criterion disc with a Peter Cowie commentary track... which in itself is a very good thing, as his are always enjoyable and informative, and his work on The Leopard is no exception. Cowie talks animatedly and at-length throughout the film's three-hour running time, providing background information about the film, its cast and crew, and on-screen analysis throughout. It's a thorough and informative commentary, well worth a listen for fans.

Disc Two

Disc Two has the bulk of the extras. We start out with A Dying Breed: The Making of The Leopard, a series of interviews collected by Criterion throughout 2003 featuring the surviving major participants involved with the film. The feature runs over an hour, and includes interviews with Claudia Cardinale (who, in her sixties, still looks lovelier than ever), screenwriters Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Gioachhino Lanza Tomasi di Lampedusa (son of the author), art director Mario Garbuglia, director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno, costume designer Piero Tosi, and film director Sidney Pollack. This is the interview for fans that want to go deeper into the film's production, featuring many who were there to witness it.

The extras continue with a Geoffredo Lombardo interview, the film's producer whose production company was bankrupted by the extravagances of The Leopard. The interview lasts almost twenty-minutes, in which the producer (who was also involved in Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers and Ermanno Olmi's magnificent I Fidanzati) discusses his involvement with The Leopard. The history of the Risorgimento is a fourteen-minute video interview with Millicent Marcus, a professor of Italian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, as she discusses the real history and personalities responsible for the creation of a unified Italy. For history buffs and Leopard fans, this is a worthwhile and enriching extra.

The Promotional materials section contains a wealth of extras that were used to promote the film, including a stills gallery, Italian newsreels, the Italian trailer, and two American trailers .

Disc Three

The "extra" on Disc Three is the feature-length American version of the film. This edit is missing twenty-six minutes of footage from the Italian cut, and features an English-language soundtrack, with Burt Lancaster's and Leslie French providing their own voices. As the supplements point out, the film was not well recieved at all, and the original Italian edit of the film was not seen in North America until a re-release twenty years later. Naturally, the film must be seen in its original Italian form, for a variety of reasons. For starters, the transfer on the American version isn't as impressive as the Italian cut. While it has been restored by Criterion, it still doesn't present as clean and sharp a picture as the original, and there is some discernable hiss on the soundtrack. With nearly a half-hour of missing footage, the American version also loses out in terms of content and story. However, this piece makes an excellent study in contrast to the original. While I don't think it's horrible by any means, one is only shortchanging him- or herself by watching the American version of the original Italian cut.

Final Thoughts

Can we talk some more Claudia Cardinale for a second? When one talks about the most luminous screen beauties of all time, Claudia has to be an inevitable selection into at least the Top Five. A ferociously attractive woman, she set the screen ablaze in the 1960s with notable starring roles in 8 1/2, The Pink Panther, and Once Upon A Time In The West. With her dark eyes, olive complexion, voluptuously curvy figure and stunning visage, Cardinale is one of those women who were simply made to be adored on the silver screen.

While she alone would be reason enough to recommend The Leopard, there's so much more substance here to enjoy and experience. The film alone would be enough; a cinematic masterpiece, The Leopard remains one of the most enthralling and enjoyable movies ever filmed. There's so much to absorb and feast upon, a visually sumptuous delight which serves as a cinematic banquet. Yet the film is also subtle and understated, speaking volumes with a little more than a blink of an eyelid, a longing stare, or a cryptic line of dialog. The Leopard is the type of movie that rewards multiple viewings, as there is so much going on that a repeat viewing yields additional rewards (in reviewing this DVD, I had to watch the film three times, and got something more from it with each additional review.)

But it is Criterion's loving restoration work and exhaustive bonus material that make The Leopard such a must-have DVD. The movie has never looked better, presenting Visconti's epic masterpiece with a vibrant, striking transfer that brings the film to life in a way few have ever seen before. Throw in a fascinating commentary track, a second disc devoted to nearly two hours worth of bonus material, and a third disc containing an American edit of the film, and we end up with one of the most meticulously informative and entertaining DVD sets of a classic film ever produced. The Leopard might be a bit pricier that other DVDs of its kind, but it is truly worth the price of entry.

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