In the middle of The Leopard (Il Gattopardo 1963) there is a hunting trip. The ring of Sicilian cicadas. A rabbit is killed. A conversation takes place. Don Fabrizio (The Leopard himself The Prince of Salina, Burt Lancaster) engages with his gamesman Don Ciccio (Serge Reggiani) about recent events: Ciccio is furious at the rigging of a referendum that saw Italy unified and his vote perverted, observant about bourgeois Don Calogero’s (Paolo Stoppa) rise from peasant stock, while Fabrizio’s announces that his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) will marry Calogero’s daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). Their conversation brings together three transitions significant to the film: cultural, social and familial.
The staging mostly makes sense. The camera is attentive to the hunters’ movement and emotion, and when Ciccio connects Fabrizio’s old holdings and Calogero’s peasant ancestry, it pivots to present this unifying landscape. Yet the rabbit jars. It bisects the frame, the pair, then, as the camera and the conversation shift, Fabrizio distractedly strokes the slain pest.
The significance of the rabbit is explained in this sentence from Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard: “While sympathetic fingers were still stroking that poor snout, the animal gave a last quiver and died; Don Fabrizio and Don Ciccio had had their bit of fun, the former not only the pleasure of killing but also the comfort of compassion.”1 This gesture, this act encapsulates Lampedusa and Visconti’s stance towards Fabrizio and the class he represents.
The Leopard – novel and film – present the Risorgimento, the moment when Garibaldi’s landing and subsequent invasion of Sicily lead to the unification and potential modernisation of Italy, through the lens of the noble Salina family. The film opens in 1860 with the discovery of a soldier’s corpse in the Salina garden, marking Garibaldi’s arrival, and closes in 1862 with an extended ball, which is marked by Tancredi’s introduction of Angelica to his society and news of the capture of the reformist Garibaldi by the new Kingdom of Italy.
Two important threads can be pulled from this: Fabrizio’s exhaustion and mortality, indicative of the nobility’s decline; and Tancredi’s rise, indicative of the ruling class’s renewal. Lampedusa and Visconti, conservative and Marxist, were both the last moments of minor Italian noble families and this is their history talking to the then present and finding parallels between the Risorgimento and the renewal of the Italian ruling class after the end of fascism. For David Forgacs and Rossana Capitano: while Lampedusa is cynical about reformation, Visconti sees the story’s exclusion of the left as revealing the hidden avenue of progress.
The thoughts of a hunter could be a false lead; the film is not the book. Yet they are of the same world. There is no such thing as distinct media, only the world presenting the world to the world; The Leopard, book and film, are two contiguous wrinkles of the world. The Leopard’s period preoccupations obscure the fact that the book is a contemporary of the film, published a scant few years beforehand to great success. People watching the surfaces of the film knew of the book’s worldly existence and its ironic and subjective filtering of the world of Sicily. Lancaster used to relay how Visconti would fill the Prince’s chests with the “finest broadcloth and silk shirts”, never to be seen by the camera but a known presence.2 This is Visconti’s metaphor of adaptation.
This attention to a worldly surface defines the film’s sensibility. The book’s success brought Hollywood attention and 20th Century Fox money, permitting Visconti certain extravagances: bespoke Salina crockery, cutlery and costuming, but also the restoration of old Sicilian palaces for sets and painting of permanent frescos. Though only seen for a moment, they also turn the film’s production into a form of interventional art, one that understands The Leopard’s contiguity with the world.
However this form of representational prowess also had its purpose within the film. Visconti was also significant director of theatre and opera and this lends him a carefully calibrated sense of how design and staging intersect. The film’s mise-en-scène is grounded in the acute observation of social behavior between class, gender and generation. Where servants stand, officers sit, feminine behaviour and the functionality of bourgeois tailoring all shape the meaning of the movie, while the thread of Tancredi’s narrative arc – his renewal of his class – can be followed in his costuming. The Leopard’s classically refined decoupage matches this grounded detail. Visconti’s fluid camera movements and Technirama compositions theatrically emphasis entrances and exits. As Walter Korte observes, Visconti’s “use of pillars, walls and doorways to block out or open up the scenes means that a single camera movement can have the syntactical effect of a series of cuts.”3 Nonetheless, Visconti will readily cut in to highlight a glance or hold a shot so that the eye can drift across his compositions and observe a distant detail, unifying fore and background.
This sensitivity sees its apotheosis in the ball sequence. Whereas the book is comprised of even episodes, Visconti presents a lopsided work: minor moments are compressed and elided while the closing ball is extended and stretched out into its own universe. Time becomes palpable. The ritual of a dance, costuming and movement, when contrasted with a netherworld downtime, sharpen prescribed behaviour into stylised performance and spectacle. As the ball progresses the Prince’s exhaustion sees him become “more an accompaniment of the mise-en-scène, rather than a determinant of it” leaving him to, at the ball’s conclusion, walk into darkness.4
The Leopard was strongly received in Europe, winning the 1963 Palme d’Or at Cannes and going onto critical and commercial success. In America it was drastically cut down, its colours poorly processed, and dubbed into English.5 However, time and the film’s influence on New Hollywood and their renewal of the studio system saw its reputation rise. In 1983, a subtitled print of the Italian cut finally made its debut in America and confirmed the film’s significance.6 Rising through time, restored as if one of its palaces, is the world of The Leopard.
The Leopard (Il Gattopardo 1963 Italy 185 mins)
Prod. Co: Titanus Prod: Goffredo Lombardo Dir: Luchino Visconti Scr: Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Luchino Visconti Phot: Giuseppe Rotunno Ed: Mario Serendrai Mus: Nino Rota Prod Des: Mario Garbuglia Snd: Mario Messina
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale, Paolo Stoppa, Serge Reggiani, Rina Morelli, Romolo Valli, Lucilla Morlacch
- Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa, The Leopard, trans. Archibald Colquhoun (London: Vintage, 2005), p. 76 ↩
- Gordon Rogoff, “My Visconti Memoir” The Yale Review 99:2 (April 2011), p. 110 ↩
- Walter F Korte Jr,., “Marxism and Formalism in the Films of Luchino Visconti” Cinema Journal 11:1 (Autumn 1971), p. 11 ↩
- Ibid., p. 2 ↩
- Admittedly, the set was a mélange of actors and languages, but this is Italian filmmaking at its most honest. ↩
- David Ehrenstein, “Leopard Redux” Film Comment 19:5 (Sept/Oct 1983), p. 16. ↩