Friday, January 28, 2011

#30 The Leopard (1963)

The Leopard (1963)

"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. "

One of the great things about going to college is that in the course of taking classes, I on occasion get to watch great films in-class, and even greater is that once in awhile these films happen to be movies off the list. This means that before I even start writing about the movie for my blog, I’ve already written rather extensively on it in that class, therefore making it much easier to convey my thoughts on the movie when the time comes to talk about it on my blog. This has happened on a number of films for this blog, such as with The Earrings of Madame de…, and Pather Panchalli. Sometimes I am introduced to the film through the class, such as when a movie is recommended to me offhand by a professor during lecture, as has happened with films such as Metropolis and Blade Runner. This unexpected advantage of being in college classes has proved extraordinarily helpful for me in choosing which movies to watch next, considering the arbitrary and unsystematic way in which I go about watching movies off of my list. The movie which I will be talking about today, The Leopard, directed by Luchino Visconti, and starring the legendary actor Burt Lancaster. So this is a movie, which in many ways bears the trappings of a Spaghetti Western, but it is much more, much much more. I think now would be a very good time to mention that for the first time since I reviewed Dracula, we are looking at a movie whose base work I have actually read.

The movie opens with the vista of an Italian Villa, which eventually pans, balcony by balcony, across the house until we are shown a room full of people saying mass. We can hear something going on outside, but the people keep to their mass. Eventually mass is concluded, and the lord of the manor, one Prince of Salina, is informed that there is a dying soldier outside, who came to the estate to announce that Giuseppe Garibaldi has landed in Palermo with an army of 800 redshirts (no, not those kinds of redshirts). Salina decides to ride off to Palermo in spite of this, which, we learn, was essentially to see his mistress who he keeps in Palermo. The next day Salina returns to his home, and, as we are shaving, we are introduced to the character Tancredi, son of a prominent family, but left impoverished. Tancredi, we learn is a highly ambitious man and this ambition will become a central part of the film. Salina is Tancredi’s nephew, and he is a nephew who he respects and loves as a son. He talks to Tancredi about Garibaldi, and Tancredi reveals that he’s going to join the Garibaldini, saying that “Things must change in order to remain the same.” After Tancredi leaves, but not before we are informed by the family priest that Salina’s oldest daughter Concetta is in love with Tancredi (who would be her first cousin), and she is nearly certain that he feels the same. The ever perceptive Salina tells us that this cannot be so – Tancredi being far too practical to marry someone of such small fortune. We are next taken to an extended scene displaying the insanity and horror that was the battle of Palermo. This scene feels like a Spaghetti Western, showing large amounts of soldiers running around shooting at each other. It’s a very manic scene, and one that is hard to figure out what is happening, which I suppose is the point. This scene ends very abruptly as we are returned to the regal Salina family, riding through the countryside on their way to their summer estate of Donnafugata. They are accompanied by Tancredi, who has been injured and decorated by the Garibaldini.

We are next introduced to the major players in Donnafugata – the mayor Don Calogero Sedara, a miserly social riser who represents the new upper class taking advantage of the revolution – a man without taste, class, or honor, and serves as a complete contrast to the regal, chic Salinas. Besides him is his daughter, Angelica, a woman of considerable beauty and wealth. Finally, there is Ciccio, a simple man who is the groundskeeper of the Salina estates at Donnafugata. We learn that he is extremely loyal to the Salina family and the old monarchy, and Salina cares deeply for the man, even though he considers the man too lofty in his principles, incapable of seeing the grand picture.

While in Donnafugata, Tancredi sets his eyes on Angelica, much to the chagrin of Concetta. Salina is pleased to see his nephew make such an advantageous selection, and offers his support to his nephew, who is now going away again to fight in the wars being waged by Piedmont-Sardinia for the unification of Italy. While this is going on, the town of Donnafugata is taking a vote to be incorporated into Piedmont, and we learn that the vote is drawn at 100% voting yes, with 0 votes no. An odd number, and we soon learn through Ciccio that the votes had been altered by the unscrupulous and ambitious Calogero. Eventually Tancredi returns as a captain in the army of Piedmont-Sardinia and marries Angelica. Eventually we are cut again, to several years later; the Salina family is attending a swanky ball, accompanied by Tancredi, Angelica, and Sedara. For 30 minutes we are lambasted with glorious images of splendor, fantastic costumes, and wonderful dances. Contrasting these images is a Prince who is mired in depression, wallowing in the changing of times. He contemplates his death, and for many scenes you find yourself expecting him to collapse on the spot. Finally, the ball ends, the various parties clear out, and Salina, a relic from a past age, and slowly, he walks home alone.

The acting in this film, I must say is simply superb. Burt Lancaster is fantastic. Salina is haughty, arrogant, cynical, and is marked with a very sharp temper; he doesn’t take kindly to those who cannot do their job. In many ways he represents a thoroughly unlikeable character, and yet Lancaster brings such a presence, and air of extreme grace and culture, his demeanor and carriage are such that he makes the character of Salina into a thoroughly likeable character. It is an absolute joy to watch him performed. Not only that, but the scenes at the ball stand as such a sharp contrast; he’s worn out, visibly tired, and moreover, left jaded by the progress and changes the unified Italy has brought to him and his family. He is a broken man, and it is apparent, and Burt Lancaster makes it that way. The contrast to the affable, cynical Salina of earlier scenes is stark, and watching him move around, appearing as though at any minute he will collapse is just saddening. Alongside Lancaster is Alain Delon, who plays Tancredi. Delon is equally good in his role. Tancredi’s character is a conflict of a seemingly optimistic naïveté, a ruthless ambition, and an extremely perceptive sense of realism. Delon really captures this role nicely. At one moment Tancredi is jovial and jocular, and at the next he is perceptive and staid, and Delon is able to achieve these minute transitions believably. The chemistry between Delon and Lancaster is superb. The dialogue enacted between the two is light and compelling. As for other major actors, I liked Rina Morelli, who played Salina’s wife. At times she borders dangerously on obnoxious overacting, but for the most part she skirts this fine line nicely, keeping more believable than obnoxious. Paolo Stoppa, who plays Don Calogero, was pretty decent. He’s very oafish, but at the same time you can see beneath the oaf a very shrewd and conniving man. Half the time I found myself waiting for him to wring his hands and laugh maniacally, though for the most part this is generally subtle enough to be entertaining. The other major actress of this movie is Claudia Cardinale, who is in a number of other films in this list. Her performance I found to be a bit touch a go. At times she’s believable and entertaining, being sexy and seductive, while underneath showing a shrewd and ambitious girl seeing an opportunity at social prominence, but at other times her performance tips towards overacting, particularly the scenes during and immediately following Tancredi’s proposal. On the whole she came off as annoying, and while in some places that’s a good thing, usually it was unpalatable. Thankfully, the brilliant performance of Alain Delon made the scenes involving Angelica entertaining enough for me to get through.

The directing work in this film is superb. Visconti does an excellent job with the camera work, which is clever, artful, but most importantly not overbearing. There are a number of fantastic scenes involving moving-camera techniques, akin to those of Max Ophüls, but Visconti also knows when to let the gorgeously stunning Sicily landscape do the work for him. One scene I particularly like in the movie is when a servant is sent to notify the Salinas of something. The camera is set up looking down the hall, and we are watching the servant’s back as he walks down the hall, each door revealing the immense size of the hallway. This scene is very striking and shows the great wealth of the Salinas spectacularly. Another scene I liked was Tancredi’s introduction into the movie. We are shown the Prince of Salina shaving, when Tancredi’s face appears in the shaving mirror, representing both Tancredi’s ambition to achieve the wealth and prestige that his uncle as achieved, while also representing the Prince’s viewing of Tancredi as himself at an earlier age. It’s a very effective scene at showing the dichotomy of the two men, before any words have been spoken. I also very much love the costuming of this film. The suits are wonderful, and the dresses are superb. Everything is very well done.

The writing for the most part is very good. Being a huge fan of the novel, I am happy to see it being given such a good adaptation. Although the overall theme of the story has been changed – Lampedusa’s novel being focused on a longing look back at days long past as opposed to the movie’s more progressive and optimistic look towards future opportunity. Although the changing of the times is indeed sad, the future is bright and paved with opportunity. This is best demonstrated in the treatment of Tancredi and Angelica’s relationship. In the novel, while there may have been affection between the two at the start of the marriage, Lampedusa openly states that the relationship was never a loving one and it fails some years later. This failure represents the incompatibility of new money and old aristocracy, and represents the deeply cynical worldview that the very regressive and nostalgic Lampedusa conveys in his novel. The movie, on the other hand is more ambiguous. Although Salina says at one point in the film, “Yes, love, of course! Fire and flames for a year, ashes for thirty. I too know what love is,” this is only the cynical viewpoint of the jaded Salina, claimant to a fairly loveless marriage. Unlike the novel, Visconti never tells the viewer what becomes of the marriage, and from their interactions at the ball, it would seem they live together happily, being more optimistic of the future and the possibilities of a unified Italy. This dichotomy can also be seen in the decisions regarding when the movie ends. In Lampedusa’s novel, the story continues on after the ball, detailing first the death of Salina’s body, and eventually his legacy as we see his fortune being squandered by his pious and aging daughters, all of whom remained unmarried, and holders of innumerable “valuable” relics, which, a priest reveals are mostly counterfeit. The movie, on the other hand, ends first with the departure of Angelica, Tancredi, and Calogero, who are happily riding home to the sound of a firing squad, their future bright. This scene is contrasted by Salina walking the streets alone, tired and worn out, but still alive, still struggling on. Though the scene isn’t by any means happy, it’s still more optimistic than Lampedusa’s novel, leaving the ultimate fates of the main characters ambiguous and open to interpretation. Even though in this sense the movie isn’t “true to the novel” it’s not an aberration. Rather, it’s an excellent reinterpretation of the story, and one which Visconti tells swimmingly.

There were only a couple problems I had with this film. The first is the inclusion of the battle of Palermo. These scenes are not included in the book, and though Visconti stated that he put them in, essentially so the viewer can see the big picture, and understand the reasoning behind the family’s trepidations regarding the Garibaldini, I do not agree. The scene looks pasted on, like it doesn’t fit, and worst of all, it drags. I feel the movie could have done much better without it. The other problem in this film is with the ball scenes. These final scenes of the film take up 30 minutes of the film in the dubbed version, which is the [i] short version [/i]. Although these scenes are extraordinarily powerful, and the costumes are gorgeous, it still drags. I feel as though if about 10 minutes of these scenes were cut (which they easily could have been), it would have been a much better experience, but that’s just me.

This movie is very, very good, but why is it on the list? It may not be a perfect film, but it’s still very good. I feel this movie is on the list on the first part because of the names. Luchino Visconti, Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale are all names which appear on this list of mine several times. Not only that, but all these names (a few times excepting Claudia Cardinale) are all at the tops of their games with this film. That may play a role in it, but I think it’s more for the strength of the film’s adaptation. When this film came out the novel had only been out for about 6 years, with Lampedusa having died shortly after the publication of his novel. This leaves little time for interpretation of the novel, and moreover, there’s no author to provide insight into the book, and as we have seen with such adaptations as Harry Potter, Eragon, and the Golden Compass, even with the author of the book there overseeing and playing a large role in the writing process, it’s very hard to adapt a novel into a movie and make it work. With The Leopard, Visconti manages to adapt the novel fantastically, while applying his own interpretations and making it work, stupendously. This film is on the list for being a fantastically well adapted movie.

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