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For more than twenty-five years Luchino Visconti's The Leopard could not be seen in a decent, uncut copy. After resurrecting this acclaimed classic for DVD in 2004, Criterion is now offering an impressive Blu-ray, reproducing the content of the previous disc release. In this case the result is well worth the effort, as Visconti's epic is one of the major works of Italian filmmaking.
The sprawling story begins in 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 fake plebiscites are held, and Tancredi returns to become a Royal officer. The Salinas are posed to blend their aristocratic bloodline with the new bourgeois through the engagement of Tancredi to the beautiful Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), daughter of the nouveau riche Don Calogero Sedàra (Paolo Stoppa). The future seems 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 into the shadows of history.
The Leopard has been imitated for forty years by ambitious filmmakers looking to be taken seriously -- Francis Coppola in The Godfather, Michael Cimino in The Deer Hunter, Sergio Leone in Duck You Sucker. The supremely confident Luchino Visconti had previously set his Senso in the same period in the North of Italy, but even that fine film cannot match the opulence on view here. The pride and decadence of the Sicilian nobility is captured in detail, from their clothing to the fabric on the furniture and the walls. This elaborate period restoration breathes an accuracy that transports the viewer to a different world. We believe that Burt Lancaster speaks Italian and comes from a long line of blooded nobles. Erich Von Stroheim would have approved.
The shooting style of Luchino Visconti is a blend of careful masters, trucking shots and close-ups that never look like scenes filmed for ordinary assembly. Despite the fascinating décor our attention is always focused on the human drama. Lancaster's Don Fabrizio is more reasonable than he looks. He admires and envies his surrogate son Tancredi even as he doubts the younger man's commitment. The revolution (risorgimento) is really a unification of Italy into a distinct nation. Don Fabrizio neither resists nor runs away. He knows that a real revolution that might deprive the nobles of their land and titles is unlikely, and 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 breathless series of barricade charges in the dusty streets that seem patterned on period paintings. But the revolution soon develops into a simple accommodation of interests. The new dominant class is the moneyed business interest represented by the rich Don Calogero Sedàra (Paolo Stoppa from Miracle in Milan). Don Calogero can nominate politicians and fix elections, wielding power that the Salinas respect even as they patronize the merchant's hopeless lack of refinement. The same goes for Calogero's 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 Fabrizio is nothing if not flexible. Angelica and Tancredi are the future and he'll not stand in their way.
The film was made on a scale that dwarfs most Italian productions. Visconti took over entire towns, erected new building facades when necessary and dressed hundreds of extras in authentic costumes. Except for the battle scene The Leopard has little in common with the American style of epic, yet its 1860 is much more convincing than a similar period reconstruction in a Hollywood movie. The pageantry of a formal arrival at the hill-town villa forces us to appreciate the feudal basis of Sicilian society. Don Fabrizio can go hunting with the commoner Don Ciccio (Serge Reggiani) to discuss the changes that are coming. Interestingly, the peasant is the one to voice an objection to the lofty Salinas family intermarrying with the common Sedàras. Yet Don Fabrizio wisely makes the match that will secure the future of his family line.
At the end of The Leopard is a giant 35-minute fancy dress ball. The former idealist Tancredi declares his intention to be a closed-minded "republican" noble ready to deal harshly with any anarchists. As in a great painting, the petty movements of the characters mask real events, such as the news of Garibaldi's defeat. Don Fabrizio suddenly becomes aware that the power of his generation is fading fast and that he himself might be dying. The beauty and decadence of the nobles is expressed in this all night gala. Don Fabrizio dances proudly, knowing that he's enjoying a last hurrah. Meanwhile, off-screen and out of sight, revolutionaries are being executed by the harsh new order. The future will be the same, only different.
Burt Lancaster has always been capable of expressing Don Fabrizio's kind of dignity and gravity, and it must be said that he's surprisingly effective -- he's allowed not a single shark-toothed smile or acrobatic stunt. Claudia Cardinale is something to swoon over in her incredibly tight-waisted dresses. Angelica reveals her lack of refinement when she makes a spectacle of herself at the formal dining table, laughing like a mule-driver. Alain Delon's Tancredi is the dashing heir to the kingdom, already betraying his previous scruples. When Tancredi changes allegiances he doesn't care who knows it. Paolo Stoppa is appropriately awkward as the bumbling Colgero, and Romollo Valli (Girl With a Suitcase, Duck You Sucker) is the amusingly endearing family priest. Amid the pomp and circumstance we notice actor Pierre Clémenti as a Salina son, and future action star Terence Hill (Mario Girotti) as one of Tancredi's noble compatriots.
Criterion's new Blu-ray of The Leopard transfers the entire contents of their impressive 2004 3-DVD set onto two HD discs. Viewers can choose to watch the full 185-minute Italian original, or the 161-minute American cut prepared by 20th Fox, in which Burt Lancaster dubs his own voice. As the original film format was Technirama (squeezed VistaVision) the razor-sharp image allows us to scrutinize textures of furniture and subtle color shifts in the walls of rooms, while counting the pores on Burt Lancaster's mustachioed face. Giuseppe Rotunno's cinematography is a marvel of natural-looking lighting. Nino Rota's score is used judiciously, and lends a classy musical veneer to the entire enterprise. The fact that Burt's voice is dubbed by an Italian actor soon stops being distracting.
Peter Cowie provides a commentary across the entire three hours of the Italian cut, a track that cover the making of the movie, the career of Luchino Visconti and a big chunk of Italian history.
The second Blu-ray disc carries the shorter, dubbed American cut. Speaking in English Burt Lancaster remains "Burt," keeping us from accepting him as a Sicilian aristocrat from 150 years in the past. The color is also good on the American cut, but it hasn't been given the digital scrubbing of the longer version. Disc producer Issa Clubb's extras are of an exceedingly high quality. The primary docu A Dying Breed uses beautifully filmed and edited interviews. Conversing naturally with the camera are Claudia Cardinale, screenwriter Suso Checci D'Amico, Giuseppe Rotunno, a relative of author Lampedusa, Piero Tosi and others. The late director Sydney Pollack, an associate of the late Burt Lancaster, tells the story from Burt's side.
A second interview gives producer Geoffredo Lombardo his say. The Leopard bankrupted Lombardo's 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. University 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 problems prohibiting 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 is also a selection of trailers and newsreels and a gallery of stills and artwork ads from various markets. Author Michael Wood contributes an essay to the insert pamphlet. Criterion's menu and art designs are simple and tasteful.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Leopard Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.