Sumptuously mounted but rather uninspiring in its execution, Luchino Visconti's Il Gattopardo (The Leopard in English) (1963) is an often colossally resplendent critique of the end to Italian decadence and the rise to prominence of its lower classes through violent means and uprisings. Based on Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's sprawling, often scathing chronicles of Sicilian society during the Risorgimento, the novel was twice rejected for publication before finally appearing on book shelves in 1958 after Lampedusa's death, when it quickly became the top-selling Italian novel of all time.
Despite poor health at the time of the film's production, the cantankerous Visconti nevertheless managed to capture the essence of that embalmed aristocracy so close to Lampedusa's heart. The film's weighty budget forced Visconti to cast an international star in the lead of Prince Fabrizio Corbera of Salina. Visconti's first choice, Lawrence Olivier, was unavailable. While the director contemplated a replacement, the studio chose Burt Lancaster for him instead - causing a minor caustic rift between director and star until shooting was well underway. In fact, Visconti is reported to have said "What am I supposed to do with this American gangster?" Undaunted, Lancaster assumed the role and very quickly gained Visconti's admiration and respect. Thereafter, Lancaster and Visconti became lifelong friends.
There are actually three versions of The Leopard: the original 185 minute Italian cut, its 161 min. North American counterpart and 151 min. Spanish cut that has never been seen since the film debuted. The film's English title is perhaps deceiving in that Il Gattopardo in literal translation means a Serval, a North African cat that roamed near Lampedusa's own territory.
The novel and the film begin their narratives with the May 1860 invasion of Sicily by Giuseppe Garibaldi, the heroic figure who united Italy through a daring thrust of military might. But the story is actually centralized on the sad, stoic demise of Don Fabrizio (Lancaster); a 19th century nobleman who quietly observes the slow erosion of his family's stately position. Usurped of both his power and his lands, Don Fabrizio solemnly endures the winds of change with great self reflection while continuing to frequent the brothels of his youth to escape the stifling climate of his own regal household.
There are considerable differences between the novel and film that bear further examination, beginning at Don Fabrizio's Tuscan palace where we are first introduced to the character of Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli) who, in the novel, is a spiritual guide of great foresight but in the film is played primarily as a fop for comic relief.
Don Fabrizio is alerted to the looming invasion by Garibaldi's troops, yet his concern veers toward his nephew Prince Tancredi Falconieri (Alain Delone); a wily playboy, would-be suitor to Don Fabrizio's daughter, Concetta (Lucilla Moracchi) and egotistical turn coat who has taken up Garibaldi's cause as a soldier, if only his true passion were not banal for adventure of any kind, thereby making his army service more of a lark than actual defiance in support against his own class.
Ironically, Don Fabrizio is accepting of his nephew's perceived shortcomings. Father Pirrone declares that Garibaldi's invasion will destroy the church and the aristocracy but Don Fabrizio is more prudent in his assessment; that change - regardless of its scope and sweep - takes time to occur, enough time at least to see him through his own life relatively unchanged.
Nevertheless, Don Fabrizio moves his family to their estate at Donnafugata under the guise that they will be further removed from the battle lines there. In reality, Don Fabrizio can be nearer to his own mistress at Donnafugata. He is also reunited with loyalist, Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa) whose daughter, Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) has grown into a regal beauty.
Superficially wounded in battle, Tancredi arrives at Donnafugata for a grand party at Don Fabrizo's estate. Tarcredi is smitten with Angelica, shifting his romantic infatuations from Concetta over the course of dinner, much to her mother, Princess Maria's (Rina Morelli) impatient regret. Tarcredi seizes on Angelica's interest to hear his war stories and tells a rather sordid tale of how he and his fellow soldiers invaded a convent. The story draws hushed gasps of disgust from everyone at the table except Angelica who finds the perverse humour rapturously charming.
The next afternoon, Don Fabrizio decides to go on a hunting expedition with Don Ciccio (Serge Reggiani), to quietly pick his brain for information about Don Calogero and his family. Ciccio is disdainful and bitter in his scandalous stories about Calogero, but he extols Angelica's untarnished innocence before moving to a rather lustful critique of her obvious physical attributes. Contented that Angelica is a good match for his nephew, Don Fabrizo informs Ciccio that respect must be paid to her.
Unshaken by Concetta's rejection in favour of Angelica - for he might just as easily have pursued a sexual relationship with her in his younger years, Don Fabrizio encourages his Tancredi's advances. The courtship proceeds and Angelica and Tancredi are married. In the novel their marriage is problematic, buffeted by competitive egos and an escalating mutual disdain. But the screenplay by Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa and Visconti is more forgiving and optimistic in its assessment of their life together. In fact, we only get a hint of Tancredi's possessive nature after Angelica dances a waltz with Don Fabrizo at the ball.
The last act of the film is problematic. Visconti has deliberately left out the final third of the novel from his movie, including Fabrizio's death in favour of one last stoic glimpse of the Prince as he slinks off to his mistress in the slums after an elegant ball has sullied his opinion of the aristocratic classes. Also, by presenting Tancredi and Angelica's marriage as mostly ideal, Visconti has diffused the erotic tension so palpably engaging in the novel. As such, Il Gattopardo is a film of mannerisms and mantras without the full-blooded embrace of its social classes as anything beyond mere cardboard cut outs.
As example, Prince Fabrizio spends large portions of the film eloquently espousing the end of his class. Yet, in those reflections there is little to suggest that he assumes any responsibility for the aristocracy's demise. Instead of being engaged by his own words, the Prince almost seems to be delivering soliloquies aimed at another place and time, as a soothsayer from the future might in reflection of an historical record far removed from his own timeline.
Visconti opted to dub the entire film in postproduction, robbing us of Burt Lancaster's magnificent range of vocalization (heard on the North American cut of the film) on the Italian version. In this dub, so too do we lose Claudia Cardinale's range of dialects. For example, she spoke fluid French when reading her lines to Alain Delon and perfect English to Burt Lancaster; none of which appears in the final cut.
When Il Gattopardo debuted it was a huge flop in North America, bankrupting Titanus Productions and all but bringing about an end to this sort of lavish style of film making in Italy. Today, the film has enjoyed a revival of sorts and, to be certain, there is much to recommend it, not the least of which are its superb production design and melodic scoring and central theme. However, on the whole, Il Gattopardo remains rather tepid melodrama at best, spectacularly sheathed in period garb but flat and one dimensional in its storytelling.
Criterion Home Video's Blu-Ray represents a stunning and immaculate reference quality transfer. The image is solid and, for the most part, utterly breathtaking. On Disc One we get the restored Italian cut, properly preserved at its 2:21:1 aspect ratio from the original Technirama film elements. Here, colors are fully saturated. Flesh tones are quite natural. Contrast levels have been superbly realized. Blacks are deep. Whites are very clean and film grain is properly represented. On the DVD - also from Criterion - grain appeared a tad digitally harsh - a shortcoming of DVD's inferior disc space. Also, Criterion has taken painstaking care to remove all hints of age related damage to the original camera negative. The result is an image of stunning clarity, well preserved for future generations to enjoy.
Blu-Ray Disc Two in Criterion's set gives up the North American cut of the film with Burt Lancaster speaking his own lines in English. Regrettably, this version has not been restored and is reframed at 2:35.1 on inferior Cinemascope film stock. Colors are faded and age related artefacts have not been cleaned up for a substandard presentation full of age related anomalies by direct comparison.
Keen eyes will note that the Twentieth Century-Fox logo that precedes the Italian cut is not the same as the one that precedes the North American cut. This is a curiosity since both the North American and Italian versions of Il Gattopardo were released at the same time theatrically by Fox. On the Italian version the Fox logo appears to be from Fox feature films circa the mid to late 1960s with its iconic art deco facade slightly cropped at the bottom and appearing horizontally stretched. On the Cinemascope version the logo is from the same vintage as the film and naturally uncompressed.
(Aside: this reviewer has noticed similar logo manipulations on other Fox classics released by 20th Century-Fox Home Video. As example, the fox logo that precedes the DVD releases of Leave Her To Heaven, That Night in Rio and Weekend in Havana is definitely not as the logo that would have appeared from the 1940s but rather inserts of the Fox logo circa the mid-1960s, heavily cropped to conform to the full frame aspect ratio of those films. This reviewer is at a loss to explain why these changes have been made to the original films. But we digress from the review herein).
Extras on Disc One are limited to an informative audio commentary from Peter Cowie. On Disc Two we get a nearly hour long reflection on the film with surviving cast and crew as well as personal reflections from the late Sidney Pollack. There's also a pair of video interviews - the first with producer Goffredo Lombaro, the second with scholar Millicent Marcus. Original trailers, newsreels and stills round out an appreciation for the film.
FILM RATING (out ot 5 - 5 being the best)