‘The Leopard’ changes in spots, with glorious results

Times Staff Writer

Luchino Visconti’s 1963 masterpiece, “The Leopard,” a dazzling yet profoundly reflective adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1960 international bestseller, at last has been released in its original full-length 205-minute Italian version.

It was first released in the U.S. in an unfortunately truncated English-language 165-minute version and then in 1983 in an internationally successful Italian version supervised by its cinematographer, the great Giuseppe Rotunno. The difference between the versions is not a matter of restoring missing scenes but rather of rounding out the film with missing bits and pieces. Stately, elegiac, ruminative, the film truly does now feel seamlessly all of a piece -- and looks glorious.

In period, scope and story, “The Leopard,” set against Italy’s turbulent era of unification in the 1860s, brings to mind “Gone With the Wind” as a rich evocation of a crumbling aristocracy. It has battle scenes and a climactic 51-minute grand ball scene, which allows for a sublime consideration of mortality on the part of its hero, the pragmatic yet reflective Prince Salina (Burt Lancaster). But “The Leopard” is as contemplative and understated as “Gone With the Wind” is dynamic and tempestuous.

The film is a glittering triumph of personal expression at its most elegant and opulent. Visconti, like Di Lampedusa, was a Sicilian nobleman, and “The Leopard,” as a saga of inevitable loss, corresponded precisely with the paradox within Visconti, who was at once a Sicilian count and a Marxist.


As the film opens, at the San Lorenzo country estate of Prince Salina, his large family proceeds with morning prayers as if there were no intrusion of gunfire from the nearby Battle of Palermo. Early on, the sagacious, prescient prince takes to heart the wise remark of his dashing but penniless nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon): “In order for things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” The entirety of the film has to do with the introspective prince acting on these words, culminating in his confrontation with what it has cost him.

As the revolution draws closer, the Salinas move to Donnafugata, a small mountain town where they have a palace immense enough to satisfy the prince’s observation that “no palace is worth having if you can count all its rooms.” Salina realizes that survival depends on accommodating the emerging, increasingly wealthy middle class. Meanwhile, the blithely opportunistic Tancredi has swiftly progressed from the red shirts of the quickly betrayed Garibaldi to the fancy uniform of the new monarchy of Victor Emmanuel. Meanwhile, the prince maneuvers his nephew into a marriage to the beautiful daughter (Claudia Cardinale) of Donnafugata’s mayor (Paolo Stoppa), who is as rich as he is vulgar.

“The Leopard” moves at a measured pace from one comprehensive and subtle sequence to another. There’s the much-commented-upon symbolic pan of the dust-covered and weary Salina family, freshly arrived in Donnafugata, seated in church, looking as if they had turned into statuary -- or corpses -- becoming part of the ancient Baroque decor surrounding them. During the incredibly lavish and deliberately suffocating grand ball, Salina, a virile 45, in at last acknowledging his attraction to Cardinale’s voluptuous Angelica, makes the connection between his mortality and the waning power of his class. He accepts the loss as inevitable but is convinced that leopards and lions such as he will be succeeded by jackals and sheep.

Even though his role is dubbed into an Italian that has no resemblance to his distinctive voice, Lancaster is nevertheless superb -- it is said that he modeled Salina on Visconti. It would seem that the onetime circus acrobat from tough East Harlem was born to play a 19th century Sicilian prince patterned after Di Lampedusa’s great-grandfather.


‘The Leopard’

MPAA rating: PG (1983)

Times guidelines: Complex adult themes

A Criterion Pictures release of a 20th Century Fox production. Director Luchino Visconti. Producers Goffredo Lombardo, Pietro Notarianni. Screenplay by Suso Cecchi d’Amico & Pasquale Festa Campanile and Enrico Medioli & Massimo Franciosa and Luchino Visconti; based on the novel by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno. Editor Mario Serandrei. Music Nino Rota. Costumes Piero Tosi. Production designer Mario Garbuglia. Set decorators Laudomia Hercolani, Giorgio Pes. In Italian with English subtitles. Running time: 3 hours, 25 minutes.

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