The Leopard (1963)

4/5

Il Gattopardo

Italy; Luchino Visconti

All Audiences

 

Italy, 1860. After Garibaldi’s revolutionary upheaval prompts a surge of panic among the country’s aristocracy, the new government seems intent on maintaining law and order and smothering any anarchic manifestations. The high classes can breathe a sigh of relief, none of the atrocities feared happened. But the prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster), the stern, upright patriarch of an aristocratic family, is among the firsts to see that they are, as a class, teetering on the brink of collapse. He perceives the insidious revelation of his social and human ebb tide with sore acuity, but it is with dignified resignation and detachment that he keeps on reigning on his sheltered micro-universe, presently gravitating around the marriage of his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) with the beautiful daughter (Claudia Cardinale) of a powerful nouveau riche.

Considered an integral part of the national cinematic heritage in Italy, The Leopard is an atypical epic, a hybrid object that still defies classification and cataloguing nowadays. Though undoubtedly seminal, it didn’t span any imitators, and it is widely seen as the last of its breed. The Leopard is at once the acme and the swan song of a genre, the historical epic, but its lush imagery can’t hide the fact that the ensemble, over its 187 min. running time, is often struggling for breath.

However, Visconti is constantly in control of his film, weaving a sinuous, meandering plot line into a splendid tapestry of themes, motifs and symbols. There are no gratuitous moments: all scenes coalesce to form a beautifully orchestrated symphony, and it is only in the lapses between its soaring splashes of rousing, majestic chords that the director and its cast hint at the lacerating sense of melancholy and alienation that is gnawing from inside, like termites, the edifice painstakingly built by generations of patricians. The problem lies elsewhere, in a certain detachment and emotional frigidness, only heightened by Visconti’s fluid but distant camerawork. Though powerfully portrayed by some of the best actors of their generation, multi-layered and credible, the characters never truly seem to become real people, in flesh and blood. They only exist within Visconti’s cryptic reality, and are dependent of the symbols ascribed to them. This lack of individualization means that, beyond the borders of Visconti’s illusion of life, they are nothing.

What the viewer is treated to is the ensemble’s unrivalled visual splendor. The Leopard has some breath-taking imagery, virtually every frame compiled and designed with an unerring eye for composition, a sense of color and texture, enhanced by a meticulous attention to details. The glitz and opulence of the baroque set-pieces are toned by moments of idyllic serenity, and they all boil down to an immersive, buoyant sensorial experience, one of the most intoxicating and authentic period piece ever to be made.

Despite a certain emotional frigidness and rigidity that seems at odds with Visconti’s cinematic DNA, The Leopard is, overall, a triumph and a feast for the eyes and mind.

 

Il gattopardo                      Il 

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