4 stars (out of 4)
Sumptuous and beautiful, suffused with a serene melancholy and deeply ambivalent love for a long-vanished past, Luchino Visconti's 1963 "The Leopard" --now starting a run at the Music Box in its three-hour Italian language version--is one of the greatest of all historical costume epics. Based on Giuseppe de Lampedusa's modern classic novel and revolving around the towering figure of the "Leopard," Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (magnificently played by the 50-year-old Burt Lancaster), this astonishing film is set in Sicily in the 1860s during the time of the "Risorgimento," the unification of Italy, and it re-creates that era with stunning thoroughness and ravishing beauty. As directed by Visconti, "The Leopard" unfolds in a succession of lavish set pieces--of war, romance and family life--that inexorably show us the passage of power from one social class to another, climaxing with an awe-inspiring 40-minute ballroom scene.
In that scene, an all-time cinematic high point, we see the Leopard's symbolic last stand. He has conspired in his own defeat by pushing his favorite nephew, the wily but resilient Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), into a wedding with Angelica Sedara/Bertiana (Claudia Cardinale), daughter of the grasping bourgeois Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), while at the same time forcing Sedara on his own daughter, Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), whose adoration for Tancredi goes unrequited.
Tancredi, a perfect role for Delon, represents the future; he's a pretty-boy opportunist, switching political sides in the civil war of the city-states as easily as romances. The prince represents the past (though he is only 45) and he has made a maneuver that's purely mercenary, designed to keep the Salina heritage intact. That is the price of the splendor we see, the loves that die, the battles fought by Italian historical unifier Garibaldi, Tancredi and others.It is a sad moment, but we know it's an inevitable one. And the prince knows it as well, as he faces his own mortality and near-obsolescence with a bitter majesty. "We were the leopards, the lions,'' he explains at one point. "Those who take our place will be jackals, hyenas.''
"The Leopard" won the Palme d'Or at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival and was regarded as a masterpiece in Europe from the start. Americans never saw that version, instead viewing the English language-dubbed, shortened U.S. cut that 20th Century Fox demanded be distributed as compensation for the services of major Hollywood star Lancaster. That edit, dismissed as boring by most U.S. audiences, has only one advantage: We hear Lancaster's familiar, crisply energetic voice, whereas, in Visconti's cut, he's dubbed into Italian.
Either way, along with "Elmer Gantry" and "Birdman of Alcatraz," it's one of his finest hours as an actor. Watching him, in his elegant costumes and with fierce, tightly contained expressions, we get the sense of a leopard or lion run to earth, a magnificent animal caged. That's an odd metaphor for an aristocrat, but one that fits this film's dramatic depth and social irony.
"The Leopard" is a nonpareil historical epic from an era that specialized in them, the early '60s age of "Lawrence of Arabia," "El Cid," "Spartacus" and "Doctor Zhivago." (This version is also available in the deluxe new two-disc Criterion DVD.) In that time, Visconti was uniquely suited for his film's double message and theme. A master of both grand opera and neo-realism, he came from those aristocratic classes, born into Milanese nobility, but he was also a political progressive and radical leftist. Much as he laments the prince's passage and the triumph of the bourgeois, he shows them as forces that cannot be stopped--while wistfully longing for the workers' revolution that never erupted. History marched on, but his beautiful film still stands alone--like the Leopard in his last shining hour.
Directed by Luchino Visconti; written by Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Visconti, based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa; photographed by Giuseppe Rotunno; edited by Mario Serandrei; art direction by Mario Garbuglia; music by Nino Rota (with waltz by Guiseppe Verdi; produced by Goffredo Lombardo. In Italian, with English subtitles. A Twentieth Century Fox release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 3:05. No MPAA rating. Parents cautioned for sexual suggestions and some violence.
Prince Don Fabrizio Salina - Burt Lancaster
Angelica Sedara/Bertiana - Claudia Cardinale
Tancredi Falconeri - Alain Delon
Don Calogero Sedara - Paolo Stoppa