I like historical dramas. The window into another era is usually interesting, especially when it throws some light on historical events that I knew little about. Luchino Visconti’s “Il Gattopardo” (“The Leopard”) is just such a historical drama, at least on the face of it.
In 1860 the process that would unite Italy into a single country was in full swing and Garibaldi was taking on Sicily. Garibaldi was in opposition to the established aristocracy and represented the middle class, typical of many of the revolutions sweeping across Europe in those years. On Sicily the aristocrat Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) sees these events with, for his class, unusual clarity. He knows that the old era is and must be over and that he has to embrace the new era. He sees the old and the new era with equal amounts of distaste and he knows that he himself is probably too old to change. This fills him with sadness and his preparation for the future must be made through his proxy, his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon). He supports Tancredi when he joins Garibaldi’s forces and he supports, even arranges his marriage to Angelica Sedara (Claudio Cardinale), daughter of the distasteful Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), Mayor of the town and representing the new power class.
Visconti made “Rocco and His Brothers” about Italy’s transition into modernity. This time it is clearly Italy’s transition into democracy.
For a three-hour movie surprisingly little happens in this movie. Visconti takes his time to dwell on each scene and let the actors and scenery speak. It is effective in expression, but it also causes some serious pacing problems. Three hours is a very long time for very little to happen. What is worse, from my point of view, is that the larger historical framework and drama is largely lost and replaced by a character study on Fabrizio, Prince of Salina. It is him we get to know, and know very well, not the context. It is not that bad a trade off, though. The Prince is a fascinating character. Strong and vulnerable, brutal and sensitive, vigorous and tired. Definitely a far more complex character than we are used to see in movies. He is the heart of the movie, but not a perfect being. His flaws are what makes him human after all. Burt Lancaster does an excellent job portraying this enigmatic Prince.
Personally I would have preferred to have a clearer picture of the context though, of the larger historical events, but that may be just me and my particular interests. At least a little more story would have been nice. It is just difficult for a character study to carry this big a production. To help out we do get stupendous sets. Seriously, this must be the wet dream for costume drama fans. Sumptuous palaces, extravagant dresses and tons of extras. The grand ball scenes at the end alone would have cost a fortune to make and if the purpose was to project old world wealth, it succeeds magnificently. I am not easily swayed by those things, but when the scenes then go outdoors, into the hills or the villages I too yield. This is eye candy galore.
Maybe the intention was to make a European “Gone With the Wind”. It certainly plays on many of the same strings. The end of an era nostalgia, the hopeless South with a heart, if not wealth, and old school romances in uniforms and big dresses.
If only the story itself was a bit more interesting. I cannot help feeling a bit cheated. The focus on the fluff and the character of the prince means that the whole element of drama is… not entirely gone, but drowning out. I wonder what exactly was the crisis, the issue here and find the question difficult to answer.
The conclusion is that I am ambivalent about “The Leopard”. Part of me loved it, another part was disappointed. Lovers of costume parties would go nuts with this movie while those who seek out period dramas for the documentary elements would end up frustrated and the broad majority would likely be somewhere between fascinated and bored.