Review #03 - Il Gattopardo (1963)
Last Update : 28-02-14
The Leopard was written by the only man who could have written it, directed by the only man who could have directed it, and stars the only man who could have played its title character. Whether another director could have done a better job than Luchino Visconti is doubtful. The director was himself a descendant of the ruling class that the story eulogizes. But that Burt Lancaster was the correct actor to play Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, was at the time much doubted. That a Hollywood star had been imported to grace this Sicilian masterpiece was a scandal.
Yet Lancaster was an inspired casting decision. He embodies the prince as a man who has a great love for a way of life he understands must come to an end. He is a natural patriarch, a man born to have authority. Yet as we meet him, he is aware of his age and mortality, inclined to have spiritual conversations with his friend Father Pirrone, and prepared to compromise in order to preserve his family's fortunes. He looks to his nephew Tancredi, played by Alain Delon, to embody the family's noble genes. Tancredi is a hothead who leaves to join Garibaldi, but a realist who returns as a member of the army of the victorious Victor Emmanuel.
Because of land reforms that he can clearly see on the horizon, the prince believes it is time for the family to make an advantageous marriage. He moves every year with his household from the city to the countryside to wait out the slow, hot summer months, and in the town of Donna Fugata. He invites the mayor to dinner, in a scene of subdued social comedy in which Visconti observes, without making too much of a point of it, how gauche the mayor is and how pained the prince is to have to give dinner to such a man. The mayor has brought with him his beautiful daughter Angelica, played by Claudia Cardinale at the height of her extraordinary beauty. Tancredi is moonstruck, and the prince swallows his misgivings as arrangements are made to go ahead with the marriage. All of this would be the stuff of soap opera in other hands, but Lampedusa's novel sees the prince so sympathetically that we share his regrets for a fading way of life. We might believe ideologically that the aristocracy exploits the working class, but the prince himself is such a proud and good man, so aware of his mortality, so respectful of tradition and continuity, that as he compromises his family in order to save it, we share his remorse.
There is another factor at work. The prince is an alpha male, born to conquer, aware of female beauty if also obedient to the morality of his church. He finds Angelica as attractive as his nephew does. But Visconti doesn't communicate this with soulful speeches or whispered insinuations. He directs his actors to do this all with eyes, and the attitude of a head, and those subtle adjustments in body language that suggest the desired person exerts a kind of animal magnetism that must be resisted. Observe how Lancaster has the prince almost lean away from Angelica, as if in response to her pull. He is too old at 45 (which was old in the 1860s) and too traditional to reveal his feelings, but a woman can always tell, even though she must seem as if she cannot.
The film ends with a ballroom sequence lasting 45 minutes. This is a set piece that has rarely been equaled, and it is also one of the most moving meditations on individual mortality in the history of the cinema. Visconti resolves all of the themes of the movie in this long sequence in which almost none of the dialogue involves what is really happening. The ball is a last glorious celebration of the dying age. Visconti cast members of noble old Sicilian families as the guests, and in their faces, we see a history that cannot be acted, only embodied. The orchestra plays Verdi. The young people dance on and on, and the older people watch carefully and gauge the futures market in romances and liaisons.
Through this gaiety the prince moves like a shadow. The camera follows him from room to room, suggesting his thoughts, his desires, his sadness. Visconti is confident that Lancaster can suggest all of the shadings of the prince's feelings, and extends the scene until we are drawn fully into it. He creates one of those sequences for which we go to the movies. We have grown to know the prince's personality and his ideas, and now we enter, almost unaware, into his emotions. The cinema at its best can give us the illusion of living another life, and that's what happens here.
Finally the prince dances with Angelica. Watch them as they dance, each aware of the other in a way simultaneously sexual and political. Watch how they hold their heads. How they look without seeing. How they are seen, and know they are seen. And sense that, for the prince, his dance is an acknowledgment of mortality. He could have had this woman, if not for the accident of 25 years or so that slipped in between them. But he knows that, and she knows that. And yet of course if they were the same age, he would not have married her, because he is Prince Don Fabrizio and she is the mayor's daughter. That Visconti is able to convey all of that in a ballroom scene is miraculous and emotionally devastating, and it is what his movie is about.