It is easy to identify Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard as the “Italian Gone with the Wind,” though doing so is not entirely accurate. True, both are lavish period pieces that envision their nations at times of great social rebellion and revolution, but Visconti’s take is far more rooted in a sense of loss as opposed to the American film’s more optimistic sensibilities.
Based on the massively popular 1958 novel by Giuseppe Tomasi, The Leopard takes place during the reunification of the Italian states between 1860 and 1862. Prince Don Fabrizio of Salina is one of the last and most powerful members of the Italian aristocracy. With news of the revolution arriving at his doorstep in the form of a dead soldier, Fabrizio must set out on a campaign of social and political manipulation in order to ensure that his family’s lineage endures into the new Italian regime.
While such a premise may not seem like a compelling plot for a film (especially one just over three hours in length), The Leopard benefits by adopting the novel’s focus on character while taking various liberalities in conveying the overarching political intrigue surrounding the story. Of the film’s two most famous sequences, the epic Battle of Palermo was entirely original to the film, whereas the grand finale of the lavish Ball serves to symbolize the novel’s second and third acts for the sake of brevity. In between these unforgettable cinematic events, The Leopard relies almost entirely upon the performance of Burt Lancaster as the Prince of Salina to carry the narrative.
Lancaster’s inclusion as the film’s leading man originated from financial necessity (only a major star could justify such an enormous production), but it ultimately proved to be a revelation. While Burt’s Italian dialogue was redubbed to allow for a more authentic regional accent, Lancaster’s performance is masterful in the way that he bears his words and his actions throughout. Of course, the rest of the film holds up too: the gorgeous costumes and sets are a visual feast, complemented exquisitely by the score and cinematography. Michael Wood said it best when he called the film “dedicated to a luxurious mourning of a lost past.”
The bulk of the supplemental disc is taken up by the completely skippable American version, which is plagued with grating voiceovers and tactless wide shots. The “Making of…” documentary, as well as the brief history of The Leopard’s source material, is well worth a look, as they impart an appreciation for the way materials are to be respectfully adapted.
The Leopard is rated PG for thematic content and fighting violence. The DVD is currently available for $20 in stores or online at Barnes and Noble.