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08 April 2013

Il Gattopardo (1963)

The Leopard
Directed by Luchino Visconti
Music: Giovanni Rota a.k.a Nino Rota
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Clauida Cardinale, 
Paulo Stoppa, Rina Morelli

*Warning* This review contains lots of superlatives. 

I saw this last year, or perhaps it was two years ago; it is a film that stays with you, one of the most detailed, well-researched period films that I have been privileged to watch. Cinematography, costumes, settings, places, the dust on the aristocratic faces after they have been travelling... director Visconti paid so much attention to detail it is said that Claudia Cardinale (playing Angelica) had a vintage embroidered handkerchief tucked into her purse - a handkerchief that was never seen in any scene in the film.

A very faithful rendition of Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel of the same name (which I  bought after I watched the movie), Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) relays the story of an aristocrat caught between the clash of two generations amidst the political unrest and social upheaval in Sicily during the 1860s.
Set during the Italian Risorgimento, the period that marked the end of Sicily's independent monarchy and the beginning of a nascent Italian State, the film moves languorously through the parched Sicilian landscape, deliberately painting the story of a people who have been marked by the  land in which they live, the period they are living in, and the poverty (or wealth) that dogs their lives. The slow pace of life amongst the aristocracy is in direct contrast to the unrest that is boiling under the surface outside their palaces.
The balance of power is shifting in Sicily and a way of life as they know it, is coming to an end for Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster), the Prince of Salina. He has been a formidable figure in politics of the state with centuries of influence behind him. And now, everything is about to change. Money and political connections have come to mean more than birth and honour in the new scheme of things.

An urgent letter has come for Don Salina from his friend Don Malvico. The Piedmontese have landed, and he and his family are taking refuge on a British warship; he urges Don Salina to do the same. Garibaldi, at the head of an army of 800 soldiers has landed on the shores - the revolution has begun.

Don Salina decides to travel to his estates in Palermo along with his chaplain, Father Perrone, because a house deserted is a house lost. His wife is prostrate with grief and anxiety. As is her wont, she seeks her consolation in prayer.
The next morning Don Salina is paid a visit by his nephew, Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), a young scalawag who has precious little respect for position, but he and his uncle share an affection that is palpable (he teases his uncle about his visit to his mistress the night before). Tancredi has come to bid goodbye; great things are happening and he will not stay at home. He is going to Figuzza to join the revolutionary forces. Don Salina is upset - the Falconeris have always stood behind the king. Yes, but which King? demands Tancredi. The pitiful Francis? Wait, and he will soon be back with the tricolour, the new flag of a new Italy. Even though he doesn't approve, Don Salina cannot hide his pride and love for his nephew.

The chaplain is trying to marry his very proper feelings towards the religious duties he is bound to, and the reverence towards his patron. Don Salina refuses to go to confession because he is not repentant that he has a mistress. He has had seven children with his wife, he tells the chaplain, but he has never yet seen his wife's navel. What does the chaplain want him to do, he asks, with a wife who crosses herself in bed before every embrace and says Jesumaria afterwards?

The chaplain is also agonised over the coming changes - they will carve the property of the church, he claims, the patrimony of the poor; then who will feed the destitute while the aristocrats make peace with the liberals and the masons? Don Salina is not so sure. The church will save herself by sacrificing the nobility. And it is right that she does so.

The Red Shirts, Garibaldi's army, are soon at the town gates. Killing and looting are the order of the day as they engage the royal forces. A pitched battle ensues, and Tancredi is in the thick of things. The revolutionary forces win the day, as the grossly outnumbered soldiers are surrounded and killed.

As the uprising continues, Don Salina is forced to take refuge in his family home in Donnafugata. They are stopped on the way, and it is only Tancredi's new found position as captain in Garibaldi's army that allows his uncle's family a safe pass.

On his arrival there, he is greeted by 'Don' Calogero Sedàra (Paulo Stoppa), the Mayor, a vulgar bourgeoisie who is everything that Don Salina despises. But Don Salina is forced to remain on a friendly basis with him, so as to not upset the fragile social fabric that is being woven anew.

Tancredi however, is cut from a different cloth. He had been flirting with his cousin, Senorita Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), who has confided in Father Perrone about her love for him. She is sure she is loved in return. Her father, however, though very fond of her, is very sure that she can never be the wife of someone like Tancredi, who is ambitious and has a glorious career ahead of him. Tancredi needs money, and while he, Don Salina, has a reasonable fortune, it has to be divided among his seven children. They have nothing to offer a rising soldier but their centuries-old name and the fading splendour of their nobility. As for love, amore, it is flames for a year followed by ashes for 30. He knows well what amore  means.
Don Salina might despise Don Calogero Sedàra as an upstart who made his fortune through land speculation, but he not only accepts Tancredi's desire to marry money as inevitable, but also supports it wholeheartedly. He knows this is the young man's way of buying power in the new regime. 
Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), Don Sedàra's daughter, is strikingly beautiful and her father is as rich and well-connected as he (and she) is crass and vulgar. Even the Prince of Salina cannot keep his appreciation out of his eyes. And it takes only one look at her for Tancredi to be besotted beyond belief. 
Don Salina is not unaware of the undercurrents at the banquet. Neither is Concetta. She knows that Angelica's arrival has sounded the death knell of her own romance. Pragmatic as ever, Don Salina sets out to find out all he can about Don Calogero and his family.

Principessa Maria Stella Salina (Rino Morelli), the Princess of Salina, is prostrate again. She has learnt that Tancredi wants his uncle to carry his proposal of marriage to Angelica, to Don Calogero. Princess Maria Stella cannot stop crying much to her husband's irritation. As is her wont, she seeks refuge in her rosary.

And so the marriage is proposed. And accepted. What is in store for the Falconeris? For Concetta? For Tancredi? And Don Salina himself?

Il Gattopardo, which won the Golden Palm for Best Picture at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1963, is seemingly about Don Salina, as he broodingly watches the disintegration of all that he holds dear. He is ageing, and losing political prestige, but he is faithful to the old social order that is fast vanishing. Unable to bend, he will break. He is heroic. And doomed. Yet the film is not as much about him as it is about Tancredi. It is the latter's political ambitions that sheds light on the dichotomy between the two Italys during this trying period; it is Tancredi's views that set the tone for what is to come, and it is through his eyes as much as Don Salina's that we see the atmosphere of change that pervades the film.  

Don Salina is nothing if not pragmatic. He knows change will come. He also knows that change will be for the worse. It is rather prophetic that he says, "We were the leopards, the lions, those who take our place will be jackals and sheep, and the whole lot of us - leopards, lions, jackals and sheep - will continue to think ourselves the salt of the Earth." And sure enough, at the ball that follows, comes the news of Garibaldi's defeat at the hands of the very men he led into revolution.

Burt Lancaster is perfectly cast as Don Salina, the leopard who has to give way to the jackals. Visconti was originally very unhappy with this choice, foisted on him by Fox. He wanted Laurence Olivier. But Fox prevailed, and Lancaster delivered what is probably his career-best performance as the beleaguered Prince, who accepts the inevitable.
There is latent power in his every move, even as he is resigned to watching the destruction of everything that is familiar. He is a prince, yet he is powerless to stop the tide of events that will change his country; it's a disaster he can already foresee - the aristocratic order will give way to new wealth; the boorishness will remain in both.  
The climax, almost an hour long, is a fantastic ball. Don Salina sees with unwonted cynicism, the failings of his class under all the grandeur on display. There is an unmistakable contempt as he watches the revellers and wonders aloud if inbreeding had made monkeys of them all. 
Alain Delon, who, in my opinion, is possibly the only good looking actor in French filmdom, is as perfect in his role of the self-serving Tancredi. He is good looking, and is perfectly happy to use his charm to achieve his ends. 
Once a soldier in Garibaldi's army, Tancredi has seen the way the wind blows and switched allegiance to army of the king, the only 'real army' he calls it. He is flamboyant, and unapologetic about his changing sides. In fact, he changes sides with conviction, putting self-advancement ahead of everything else.   

He is without any loyalty whatsoever, except perhaps to himself. In the beginning, he seems to be a mirror image of Don Salina; in fact, it is on this nephew, rather than his own children, that the Prince rests his hopes and aspirations on. But Tancredi is, deep inside, his own person, and definitely a more ruthless politician than his uncle.
This film is possibly the most political film Visconti made. Born an aristocrat, Visconti was an avowed Marxist, and this dichotomy was evident in most of his films. Il Gattopardo is an epic in its fullest sense - magnificent, opulent, dramatic, and all this against a stunning backdrop that makes for a mesmerising visual experience.
The film's opulence owes much to the magic of its cinematographer Guiseppe Rotunno, while composer Nino Rota provided the lush, dramatic soundtrack. 
If one can imagine a 'perfect' masterpiece, it would be this. Lovingly restored, the new Criterion Collection print is worth buying (even at the exorbitant rate that Criterion charges).  

*The screen shots are from the various trailers, and publicity stills that are available in public domain. My copy of the film is Blu-Ray and it doesn't lend itself to capturing screenshots on my laptop. :( If anyone has found a way out of that imbroglio, I would appreciate the tip.

  • In an interview with Roger Ebert, Burt Lancaster said, "They wanted a Russian, but he was too old. They wanted Laurence Olivier, but he was too busy. When I was suggested, Visconti said, 'Oh, no! A cowboy!' But I had just finished Judgement at Nuremberg, which he saw, and he needed $3 million, which 20th Century-Fox would give them if they used an American star, and so the inevitable occurred. And it turned out to be a wonderful marriage." And it was. Burt Lancaster and Luchino Visconti forged a friendship that would last their whole lives.
  • The Italian title, Il Gattopardo, translates literally into The Serval, which does belong to the cat family, but it is not a leopard. Strangely enough, in French, it was released as Le Guépard, which translates into The Cheetah. I suppose they thought one big cat was as good as another.
  • The Criterion Collection edition comes with the beautifully remastered original Italian version with subtitles, a second disc that has the dubbed American release, and interviews with Claudia Cardinale, screenwriter Suso Cecchi D'Amico, photographer Rotuno, producer Goffredo Lombardo, filmmaker Sydney Pollack and others, along with original theatrical trailers and rare behind-the-scene production photographs.
  • This is a slow-moving film, with not much of action even though the backdrop is violent. 
  • Please do not watch the movie in its (truncated) English version. For some reason known only to Fox, which distributed it in English, the film was poorly dubbed, and the film, which originally ran at 205 minutes at Cannes, was criminally reduced to 165 minutes. Do watch it in its longer, sub-titled, Italian version. (The Criterion Collection Italian edition with sub-titles also runs to only 185 minutes, but this was apparently the 'official' version, and one that Visconti himself preferred.)
  • Also, even though the movie focuses on the relationships between people during that fraught time, it would still be helpful to have some knowledge of the campaigns of Garibaldi and Mezzini, and the unification of Italy (Il Risorgimento).


  1. Quite an interesting and balanced review - on one, review quenches the thirst that arises for the film that you have not seen, and on the other hand stokes enough thirst to add to the list of 'must-watch'

  2. Madhulika Liddle9 April 2013 at 00:42

    "Alain Delon, who, in my opinion, is possibly the only good looking actor in French filmdom"

    Oww!!! Not even the gorgeous Louis Jourdan? Or the delectable Jean Dujardin? ;-) But, as you say, your opinion.

    Coming to the review, you've totally sold this film to me. I think you were the one who recommended it to me in the first place, though I haven't got around to getting it yet. Will make sure I get the Criterion Collection version when I do.

  3. *Grin* I always found Louis Jordan, when young, a rather petulant young man. I mean, yeah, he is good looking, I guess, but he doesn't appeal to me. No, Jean Dujardin doesn't really appeal to me in the looks department either. But then I find Daniel Autiel good looking, so... :)

    Yes, I told you about the film when I first watched it; then I waxed eloquent about it when I got my hands on the Blu-Ray about a year and a half ago... *grin* Yes, please, please, do get the Criterion edition. Otherwise all you will get is the horribly cut English version. :(

  4. Two of my favourite actors, Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon, need I ask for more? No, of course not. I will be honest, I just skimmed through the review, you know lack of time and all that. Besides I want to read it at leisure after all my fav stars feature in this film. However what little I read made one thing obvious and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will repeat what I always say and that is old films had a story. It was not all about ear splitting sound and computer graphics.

    By the way if you were to ask me to choose one Burt Lancaster film, it would be 'The Train'. My father often talked about it and I later had the opportunity to see it, just loved it.

  5. I hope you get the time, Shilpi. :) And thanks for the recommendation. I shall look for that film as well.

  6. Madhulika Liddle10 April 2013 at 00:41

    I second Shilpi's recommendation of The Train - a really good film. Do watch if you come across it, Anu.

  7. Madhulika Liddle10 April 2013 at 00:44

    "But then I find Daniel Autiel good looking, so... :)"


  8. Good show. Thanks, Madhu. With both of you recommending it, now I have to see where I can find it.

  9. Such a fabulous film! I saw it ages back on TV. Loved every minute of it. I think I saw the longer version. It was long but I didn't mind. The attention detail and the intricate play betweent he characters make it nearly an intimate play at times and then it sweeps you away to bigger canvases, Hats off to the master director!

    But my memory is always ver ykind to me. I have forgotten enarl yeverything of the film and thus I can watch it again. I think I recorded it at that time on a video cassette. Should excavate it one of these days!

    "Alain Delon, who, in my opinion, is possibly the only good looking actor in French filmdom"
    Poor you, losing on French men. That leaves more for us! ;-)

  10. The way the film begins with the opening of the windows after the family prayers and the sounds of shots and the winds billowing the castle curtains inwards bringing with it the scents and memories of the dead soldiers body in the gardens is wonderful. The winds of change are already at the door.

    Interestingly Visconti chose to end the film with Don Fabrizio walking away from the ball and kneeling and looking at the stars . Before he does that he tells Tancredi to take his family home. Is that symbolic of handing over the reins to the younger man and a sign of the prince's coming death. I think Visconti did not want the leopard to die.

    But, the book ends when the prince is long dead and his family is losing the last of their prestige and possessions. When he wrote the book Tomasi had seen his island bombed to bits by the Allied Bombers and he wanted to depict the end, as a form of catharsis perhaps.

    In the book, only at the end does Concetta realise (or is this what she chooses to believe ?) that Tancredi really loved her and Angelica was just "amore" a fleeting fancy followed by years of ashes. But Tancredi is dead too and so is the family prestige and everything is symbolically thrown out onto the rubbish heap. This is not there in the film. Perhaps Visconti did not want to show all that, did he think of himself as the Prince. Lancaster said in an interview that he modelled his idea of the Prince from watching Visconti. Remember Visconti himself was a born into an aristocratic family was the Count of Lonate Pozzolo

  11. I like your description about your memory's kindness towards you. :) Yes, do watch it again.

    Poor you, losing on French men. That leaves more for us! ;-)
    Laughing out loud at this. Hey, I only talked about Frenchmen in films. Now, goodlooking Gallic men....hmm...

  12. I liked the beginning shots myself. The never-ending prayer, and the younger family members itching to go out and see what's happening. The ending was tragic really, even though it is not dwelt upon - you can see Don Salina's sadness. And even Tancredi's discomfort - he knows something is wrong.

    Yes, I know Visconti was born a noble; there is a very good essay on the dichotomy of what he filmed versus his background that is part of the Criterion Collection's DVD set. How he and Tomasi were both similar and at odds at the same time.

    It is interesting about Concetta's belief - incidentally, all through the film, that is what I thought - that his tenderness towards Concetta was somehow more real, than his absolute fascination with Angelica. So I would veer towards thinking that Tancredi's liason with Angelica was very pragmatic but just an initial passion that would fail under the constraints of a longer relationship.

  13. Yes I finally read the review and as expected it has a good story and what's more it has history. I love such films.

  14. Man,Alain delon. The most handsome man ever.

  15. That really says it all, doesn't it? [grin]

  16. Why didn't I see this comment before?

    It is a beautiful film, Shilpi. If you can get your hands on it, please do watch!

  17. Oh, sorry I didn't realize you had commented on my Delon comment. He was much more than a pretty face As u know. His persona of the doomed ,amoral criminal is better than any one ever. Two of my favorite actors of all time are Brando and Delon. Le Samuri is my favorite movie. Have you ever seen Purple Noon? Any of his movies is worth watching. I realize The Leopard is a grand movie but I thought it was too specifically Italian in its history and context. Great review though!

  18. Yes, The Leopard was definitely Italian - in its language and ethos. But I love history, so it was fantastic to see the movie playing out that period in the history of a nation.

  19. Of course you are right and Burt Lancaster was great. Bertolucci' movies are always interesting to watch but I like his more personal movies Last Tango in Paris and the one with Jack Nicholson,I forget the title.

  20. I'm not very fond of Marlon Brando. And I must admit (ashamedly) to not liking The Last Tango in Paris at all!

  21. He is one of those actors whose lesser known works are just as remarkable as his more famous. One of my favorite roles of him is Reflections of a Golden Eye. But I understand some one not liking him. I think his personal life and contemptuous attitude towards others was a turn off for most. He really laid it all out in Last Tango though ,his soul and much more. I guess we agree to disagree!

  22. Please forgive me! I should have read your review more carefully the reason I brought up Bertolucci is because I confused 1900 by him with the Leopard. Both movies were restored and rereleased around mid eighties. 1900 stars Robert DeNero and Gerard Depardue. It's a 4hr epic about the rise of fascism in Italy. I think you would enjoy it since you like history based epics. But I stand by my opinion of the Leopard. It was a bout the demise of the aristocracy in Italy ,something I really couldn't relate to but none the less a great movie. My favorite Visconti movie is Death in Venice. It's also based on a great novel and deals with the last days of a dying aristocrat who is also a homosexual. I highly recommend mrs. Warrier.

  23. I think it was more because he was Marlon Brando playing Marlon Brando. I don't know really - it's just an instinctive reaction towards some people. It is not as if I knew anything about his personal life (or would have cared much if I did) when I was a kid. I know he is considered a great actor, so obviously, my view is not that of the majority.

  24. I have seen Death in Venice. The movie was good (and I like Dirk Bogarde). So was the Thomas Mann novel on which it was based. I just didn't like it. Again, I really have no particular reason why. I have not seen 1900. Thank you for the recommendation. One more for my 'to-watch' list. WDIGTT?!

  25. It was a cold movie but I liked it. Dirk Bogarde was a peculiar actor who is always fascinating to watch. I really like the Servant based on a screenplay by Harold Painter. It might have been a play as well ,not sure.
    I think you will like 1900 but try to find the fully restored version. It's 4hrs long and since you like long movies it is right up your alley mrs.Warrier!

  26. Yeah, my husband liked it too. It repelled me. *shrug*

    Will definitely keep an eye out for the fully restored version of 1900. It is not the length of the film, but its ability to engage me that keeps me engrossed. Or even an hour-and-a-half movie can bore me to tears.


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