Death Leopard

Il Gattopardo (Luchino Visconti, 1963)

Visconti is perhaps the most painterly of directors. Long, slow takes of immense richness. His elaborate visual tableaux are the stars, his characters seem a little frozen. You don’t expect fireworks from them as they know better than to deviate from their roles in this buttoned-up world of nobility, suffused as it is with etiquette. In the extras to this DVD, Claudia Cardinale says she was instructed to “separate your eyes and mouth; your eyes must say the opposite to whatever words you speak”.

All of this does mean that his films are quite demanding and require you to be in a patient mood. Nothing is rushed and The Leopard‘s running time of three hours is typical. They’re seldom shown in cinemas but they really are designed for the big screen, where you’re shut up in the dark and kept captive. I’ve never had the experience myself but I’m sure that on le grand ecran his sets would have one drooling (it’s likely that none of this applies to his early neo-realist films about peasants and fishermen, but again I ain’t seen ’em).  

Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), about the twilight of Sicilian aristocracy and the dawn of Italian unification, is known as a classic of Italian literature; I’m sorry to say I never got round to finishing the book. However, with his aristocratic background and the reflective, melancholy feel to his films Visconti must have seemed perfect for the adaptation, and it suits him.

For example- with my favourite actor mincing his way around my favourite city, Death In Venice is hard for me to dislike; but apart from its snail’s pace, the cod-philosophical debate scenes with Mark Burns make me chew my knuckles with embarrassment. The Leopard however makes for an excellent script, liberally sprinkled with glittering jewels of lines (“I know what love is. Fire and flames for one year, ashes for thirty”).

I tried to do some superficial wikipeding to get the story on Garibaldi and Italian unification, but it appears endlessly complicated. Knowing the history would probably make it easier to follow the film but you can pick up the gist. The story is really a changing of the guard; as the Prince recedes, the raffish bourgeois Don Calogero sees his stock rise. His daughter marries the Prince’s nephew and their generation will shape the new Italy.

With great whiskers and sideburns, Burt Lancaster plays the Prince of Salina, descendant of Roman emperors, with dignity, authority and a quiet sadness. It’s a very powerful performance. Feathers in his cap, Alain Delon is all smirking, supremely confident spivvery as his nephew Don Tancredi, the young man on the make. As his betrothed Angelina, Claudia Cardinale gives a lusty, earthy turn which stands out in the decorum of these drawing rooms. One memorable moment has her cause a scene at the dinner table, by roaring uncontrollably when Tancredi shares a ribald anecdote about some old nuns who were waiting to be ravished. Many supporting roles (the Prince’s uptight wife and priest, his hunting partner the village organist) also linger in the memory.

It’s a film that feels far more epic than is ordinary for a costume drama. Nino Rota delivers a swelling, over-the-top orchestral score and the long shots of the Prince and his organist out hunting on the hills, as well as those of his convoy on their way to Donnafugata, give the film a distinct spaghetti western feel. Sicily looks exotic.

Indoors of course it’s all deep focus, the camera discreetly swooping and soaring to take in these magnificent churches and houses. Even the soldier’s corpse found in the Prince’s gardens at the start of the film looks rather pretty, like a Géricault painting.

The titles do their best to build up the nobility; to a stirring score, the camera discloses a great stately home before a mountain range, viewing it from different angles in the tree-lined garden. We see the rows of trees, then the rows of crumbling romanesque busts in the driveway. By the time we’ve approached the house it glides carefully from window to window -we pick up voices- until finding an open window and gingerly crossing the threshold. We see the household praying, led by the priest’s latin. Prayers are disturbed by news of the soldier and Garibaldi’s sweep through the region- the Prince wanders off giving orders. What shall we do?, the weeping women ask the priest. They start praying again. A gently anticlimactic send-up.

When the Prince and Tancredi first meet in a room filled with sports paintings, the nephew is cheeky. He’s in with Garibaldi’s troops and excited by the revolution. They argue, his argument being that “everything has to change so that everything can remain the same”. It seems to hold water with the Prince, who repeats the phrase later. The bourgeois wish not to destroy us, he decides, but to take our place. He repeatedly makes excuses for Tancredi, telling the unconvinced that his behaviour and his politics are “of his time”.

The phrase ringing in his head, the Prince does not change his ways. He rides into the seedy alleyways of Palermo to see his mistress- understandable as the Princess clutches prayer beads in bed and crosses herself every time he touches her. Whilst cannons and cavalry reduce Palermo to rubble, he obstinately takes his family across the roadblocked island to their holiday home in Donnafugata (travel permits obtained in exchange for giving some revolutionary soldiers a tour of the beautiful frescoes in his house).

The village holds a plebiscite on Italian unity and finds itself undercut with delicacy. As the Prince arrives at the polling station, the wind blows dust into the faces of his party. Be grateful for this wind, he tells his priest, without it the air would be fetid. Over the ballot box stands a man with SI and NO voting cards- no pressure then. That evening is a farce; on the crier’s balcony all the candles blow out, and four times the brass band jump in before the result has actually been declared (a unanimous SI).

On a rabbit hunt, the church organist admits to the Prince that he voted NO. The Prince consoles him; they had to be given their election victory to prevent anarchy. However the organist provokes his rage when he opposes the love match between Tancredi and the daughter of the Prince’s “enemy”; Don Calogero is an “example of the new man” whose first thought is to get rich by stripping the church of its land and assets. “It would constitue surrender… the end of your family”. Calogero can’t believe his luck when he receives the proposal.

The social climbing seems to suit Tancredi. When he and his pals return, they are no longer in the orange tunics of Garibaldi’s army, but the ostentatious buttons and tassles of the King’s army (“people will no longer suspect us of stealing their chickens”). He is received politely by the Prince’s household, when Angelica bursts into the house- wild-eyed, slightly feral and soaked by the rain. She and Tancredi start necking, and her hungry outstretched hands grope at his back. As usual the others don’t know where to look.

The Prince receives a visit from Chevalley, on behalf of the new Italian government. He’s a progressive enlightenment man whose worldview is much less fatalistic than that of most Sicilians he meets; the harsh climate can be improved, we can fix anything and everything. The household amuse themselves by shocking him with tales of the lawlessness and anticlericalism of Sicilians.

The government is looking for good men from all over the kingdom; the Prince is offered the post of Senator (which sounds like the House of Lords). He cordially declines, being “fatally compromised” by his ties to the old order. It’s also a question of character, suggests the reticent Prince. “I lack self-deception, which is vital to convincing others”. He recommends that they give the post to Don Calogero. We know about him, replies an exasperated Chevalley, but we wanted an honest man. Not for the Prince, however, the vanity fair of politics, the call has come too late. He wants to be alone with the ghosts of his ancestry.

The final third of the film is given over to a ball, in which Visconti reaches new heights of opulence. Plenty of deep-focus, the rooms packed with palms, ladies fanning themselves in ballooning gowns, chandeliers, gold-leaf furniture, bewigged servants and waltz music. Bogarde once remarked that the budget for the flowers on Visconti’s The Damned was double the entire budget for Losey’s King & Country and we can well believe it.

The ball features pompous, narcissistic generals, and Angelica’s society début; but the burn-out in Burt Lancaster is the most interesting thing on show. He looks ill, guzzling water and hiding himself away. He laments the inbred quality of the new generation of aristocratic women; “like monkeys, ready to swing from the chandeliers and display their behinds”. He is fixated upon a painting of a dying man, to a degree that disturbs Tancredi and Angelica somewhat.

The latter asks him for a dance and Tancredi is slightly jealous -looking on with a twisted smirk as they waltz, sweating noticeably as the Prince kisses her hand a little to ardently- but after the dance the Prince looks even more forlorn, moving slowly through the party as if dazed. Loneliness is indeed a crowded room. We see Angelica’s eyes still trained on him even as Tancredi kisses her on the mouth.

After interminable tracking shots of young couples gliding over the dancefloor, we finally see morning light creep through the french windows and the guests say their goodbyes. The Prince’s family are waiting in their carriage but he elects to walk home, through the stray cat-strewn slums of Palermo. The film winds up as he kneels and prays to a star.

The marriage ensures that his bloodline will survive, albeit cannibalised by the more rapacious genes of the greedy bourgeois family. The leopards, as the Prince puts it, must make way for the jackals. Snobbish? Certainly, that’s the whole point. A slow, sad, elegy of a film, but as visually rich as the eyes can bear. It’s got a lot of style and it’s got a lot of content. Next time it’s on at the cinema, keep the whole day free and sink yourself into it.


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