Some period pieces are immersive: They succeed, to an extent, in transporting you to another time and place. Others seem to create, accidentally or on purpose, an artificial remove, looking upon past events as though they were occurring behind the glass at a museum. Somewhere smack-dab in the middle of these two approaches lies The Leopard, Luchino Visconti’s lavish, leisurely historical drama about waning aristocracy in 19th-century Italy. The details of clothing, architecture, and bric-a-brac are so carefully and meticulously recreated, they generate a sense of you-are-there immediacy. In The Leopard, it’s not the audience but one of the characters himself who’s acutely aware, at all times, that he’s experiencing ancient history as it unfolds. He knows he’s in a period piece, even when we forget.
The character is Don Fabrizio Corbera, the Prince Of Salina, played by the rugged American movie star Burt Lancaster. It’s 1860 in Sicily. The Risorgimento, a decades-spanning movement to consolidate the various independent Italian states into a unified nation, has exploded into armed conflict. Things are changing fast. Sheltered from the violence, and likely to be treated very well in the new world being born before his eyes, the prince nonetheless knows that his days—and those of the ruling noble class—are numbered. He is an observer of his own impending obsolescence. His here and now will soon fade into the oblivion of then and there. “The middle class doesn’t want to destroy us,” he remarks, in one of several eloquent speeches that mark this aging socialite as the Greek chorus of his own story. “They simply want to replace us, and gently.”
The prince’s melancholy self-awareness, his embodiment of the nostalgia at the heart of so many films about the past, is just one element that’s ushered The Leopard into the pantheon. Some have come to think of it as cinema’s grandest epic, the most beautiful example of large-canvas filmmaking. It won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1963, which is one of those calls that makes perfect sense in retrospect, given the glowing reputation the film has acquired, and plenty more sense if you think about how it really operates. Jury members at Cannes don’t usually go for a high-budget historical drama, a truly big movie; doing so would theoretically push against the very principles of the fest. But The Leopard is a very Cannes kind of epic: For all the sheer size of its production and the history it chronicles, this is ultimately a movie about characters just going about their charmed daily lives as momentous events occur around them. It’s a neorealist epic, in pacing if not in the wealth and status of its subjects. It luxuriates where other epics churn, churn, churn. It is uneventful, and gloriously so.
Based, and not loosely, on a novel of the same name by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa—who died before it was published in 1958 and thus never got to see it become a revered classic of European literature—The Leopard isn’t plotless. Plenty happens across its three hours or so. It’s just that most of what happens does not happen to our main characters, who are largely spectators to the end of an era. The prince vacations, philanders (“I’ve had seven children with her, and I’ve never seen her navel,” he complains of his wife), witnesses a rigged plebiscite, has articulate arguments with the family’s personal priest (Romolo Valli), and turns down a senate appointment, reasoning that the new government will have no place for his old-world ideas. Often, he simply contemplates, gazing out the windows of the family manor at the rolling countryside. This is a long film, but it doesn’t fill its running time with lots of incident; like its hero, The Leopard sets aside several moments to simply take stock of a way of life that will soon expire.
As in many costume dramas, there is a love triangle. The Prince’s dashing nephew Tancredi, played by the dashing French movie star Alain Delon, has a spark of romantic connection with Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), the Prince’s shy daughter. (Settle down—it was the 1800s.) But Tancredi’s interests, sexual and political, soon shift to Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), seductive daughter of a wealthy, bourgeois social climber. Tancredi is fickle in most matters, not just those of the heart (and loins). The film begins with him setting off to join Giuseppe Garibaldi’s red-shirted rebel forces, apparently stricken with moral responsibility to the cause. But an hour later, he’s returned in the regal attire of the King’s army, having traded revolutionary values for the privileges of being a loyal soldier. The prince looks upon his nephew with a mixture of understanding and unease, recognizing and maybe even admiring his ambitions while implicitly lumping him with the “jackals and hyenas” that will soon replace his class of “leopards and lions.” The movie seems to share his ambivalence.
As an adaptation, The Leopard remains largely faithful to its source material, which helps explain its halfway sympathetic perspective on Italy’s rich and famous. (Lampedusa himself was a prince, the last of his family.) Visconti adds a breathtaking, chaotic scene of urban warfare, the rebel troops swarming the streets like angry fire ants. He also abbreviates the ending, concluding on a bittersweet note. Lost in translation, understandably, is one of the author’s bolder storytelling devices: His habit of using omniscient narration to leap forward in time, offhandedly revealing the fates of his characters. (As viewers, we can only guess that the basically arranged marriage between Tancredi and Angelica will quickly go sour; the book tells us as much.)
There are also, of course, things that cinema can accomplish that literature cannot. Would it risk cliché to report that The Leopard really is a banquet for the eyes? The earlier Senso was not just Visconti’s first color film, but regularly accepted as the first color production in all of Italian cinema. The director builds on what he learned there to bring 1860s Italy to vibrant, expressive life; every dress, every drawing room, every shot of the scenery practically glows. He uses the whole widescreen frame and expands the depth of field, which makes the attention to details of production design all the more evident. At times, watching The Leopard feels like stepping into a painting commissioned by the characters themselves. At the same time, the lush clarity of the imagery serves a thematic function: This is a film about a man who can see everything coming—an idea reinforced by the way that Visconti shoots each environment, so that the distant background is nearly as clear as the foreground.
On screen, The Leopard is a work of endless contradiction. It’s a film about war with only one (admittedly spectacular) battle scene, a film about revolution that focuses almost entirely on characters staying out of the conflict, and a political film that seems to resist easy political readings (try as some did to connect its vision of a rapidly changing society to the Italy of the 1960s). It’s about wealthy people living in their bubble of luxury while the world burns; the final scene, which keeps a string of proletarian executions offscreen, is especially harsh. On the other hand, it’s genuinely melancholic about the passage of an age, perhaps because it seems to adopt the prince’s perspective. The Leopard responds to cultural change with apprehension and regret, even as it recognizes that the next era might not be much different than the one it’s replacing. (As the prince puts it, “For things to remain the same, everything must change.”)
Visconti is probably key to the conflicted nature of this adaptation: The filmmaker was born into privilege, a descendant of the very ruling class he eulogizes here. But he made his name as a director chronicling the hardships of the working class; his debut, Obsession, is generally considered the very first film of Italian neorealism, a movement all about the struggles of common people. With The Leopard, Visconti seems to be working out, on an enormous scale, his own contradictions—the blue blood and the genuine outrage rushing side by side through his veins.
Or maybe it’s all just a lament for the death of a certain kind of glamour: The rich will keep living with insular indifference, as they always do, but they’ll never do it again with the grace and style on display in The Leopard. To that end, Visconti couldn’t have found a better star for his melancholy bacchanal, even if the director initially resented the casting choice foisted upon him by his backers. Lancaster, a Hollywood cowboy making like Italian royalty, has the perfect poise to play a jungle cat in decline. He is proud and commanding and perfectly believable as an incorrigible womanizer. But by the early ’60s, when Lancaster was entering his early 50s, time had been to tug at his rough charm. The actor has the slightly wounded air of a man aging out of his indomitable swagger; there’s a sadness inextricable from his refined star power. Lancaster is perfect in the part, even with his voice dubbed over for the Italian cut and even if the American cut—wherein everyone else had their voices dubbed—didn’t make much of a splash in the States. (At least before the 1980s, when the first of two major restorations helped salvage its reputation.)
When The Leopard screened at Cannes, it stretched its legs at 205 minutes. By the time the movie made it to America, in a cut Visconti denounced, it was 40 minutes shorter. That version, which is also available today through Criterion, makes some of its biggest excisions from the sumptuous gala sequence that ends the movie—a major mistake, as this passage is widely celebrated as the film’s finest, in part because it purposefully seems to stretch into eternity. All of the movie’s fascinating contradictions are on full display, as Visconti wanders the all-night party with his protagonist, taking in the elegance of the event as well as the host’s shifting emotions. As a sort of a farewell party for the ruling class, it gets across what’s being lost, while also effectively communicating—through one bittersweet dance—the passing of the torch. Again, the sequence is protracted by design: It’s meant to evoke one of those nights that never seems to end—magical for some, interminable for others. It’s a long goodbye.
So, too, is the movie. Even in its shortest incarnation, The Leopard takes its time. Like someone making one final pass through the childhood home they’ve just sold, it lingers on everything, in no hurry to get out the door. That’s what makes the film feel timeless: As specific as it might be about its specific era—and whatever Visconti was really commenting on by dramatizing its end in marathon-length form—The Leopard works as a gorgeously languid portrait of slowly letting go of anything, be it a place or a person or a lifestyle. It’s not exactly a roller-coaster ride of a movie, but when you’re taking one last look around, isn’t it better if the cart moves slowly?
Did it deserve to win? The Leopard is one of those movies that inspires people to note that “they don’t make ’em like they used to.” It’s a classic, no question. But was it the best film at Cannes in 1963? Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Hitchcock’s The Birds would be strong challengers if either played in competition, instead of as special screenings. The official lineup was heavy with other adaptations of major literary works, from Peter Brook’s stark Lord Of The Flies to future Palme winner Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life to Robert Mulligan’s sturdy take on To Kill A Mockingbird (buoyed by Gregory Peck’s essential performance as Atticus Finch, an even better casting choice than Lancaster in The Leopard.) Also based on a novel, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? brought a much wilder subversion of American star power to Cannes, pitting real Hollywood rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford against each other. But if anything else deserved the award The Leopard won, it was Masaki Kobayashi’s tense, riveting Harakiri, one of the great samurai movies—in part, because it takes aim at the very codes of honor that genre often takes as gospel.
Next up: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives