Sicily, 1860. It’s the time of the “Risorgimento” or resurgence – the unification of Italy into one cultural and political entity. This movement aimed to turn The Kingdom of Two Sicilies into a new unified, more democratic Italy. Two of the prominent political figures of this movement are Giuseppe Garibaldi and his mentor Giuseppe Mazzini. Garibaldi and his men are in conflict with the King’s soldiers and a violent battle is happening in the background as the story begins. The film is based on the 1958 novel by Italian author Giuseppe di Lampedusa and Lampedusa based the lead character Don Fabrizio on his great-grandfather.
Burt Lancaster plays Fabrizio, a charismatic and proud aristocrat in his late 40s who belongs to an ancient noble family. He is referred to as the Prince of Salina several times in the story. Despite being someone with a good knowledge of politics, he chooses not to get involved in politics himself. Even though he is not without some character flaws, they seem trivial compared to his more admirable qualities. Fabrizio is very much aware that his time is coming to an end and that he should accept the new one – the emerging middle class which will soon replace his ruling class – without protest. As he says towards the end of the film, “the leopard will soon be replaced by the jackal.” He knows that his favorite nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon) is not the same man he is but wants good for him regardless. Tancredi is a boastful opportunist who is no match for his own shy and reserved daughter.
He arranges to marry him off to Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), the daughter of a wealthy Mayor belonging to a lower class. Fabrizio instantly sees that Angelica is the right match for Tancredi and that she’ll help him rise through the corridors of power. The film ends with a 40-min ballroom sequence where a disenchanted Fabrizio reflects on his past, the coming generation and above all, his own mortality. This beautiful sequence encapsulates the theme of the whole story. The late critic Roger Ebert in his review of the film said that the film was directed by the only man who could’ve possibly made this film and the lead character played by the only man who could’ve played him. I share the same sentiments. Luchino Visconti is the director and Lancaster the actor. No one could’ve imagined the film the way the way Visconti did and no one could’ve played the character of Fabrizio better than Lancaster. The casting of Lancaster created a considerable amount of noise when the film came out. “What’s an American doing in an Italian film?”, asked many.
The primary reason for his casting was to gather more attention to the film in the U.S. But this actually turned out to be a surprisingly favorable decision as Lancaster is absolutely mesmerizing as Fabrizio. It’s hard to take your eyes off his exquisite performance. It’s easily his best performance. He is present in nearly every frame and his presence dominates the film throughout its entire 180-min runtime. The humanity and gravitas he brings to the film probably wouldn’t have been possible by any other actor. Lancaster’s lines are dubbed in Italian but that’s not something to be concerned about. With his inimitable and graceful body language and gestures, Lancaster effortlessly gives off the impression that he really is a noble Italian aristocrat. Some of the film’s funniest lines belong to him. My favorite is the one where he tells Father Pirrone the reason why he visits a prostitute in Palermo every now and then. Also funny is the line, “I also know about love. Fire and flames for one year and ashes for thirty.”
At one point, Marlon Brando was considered for this role. Now that I’ve brought up Brando, I have to say that Fabrizio is a character that shares some similarities with Brando’s Vito Corleone from The Godfather. Both men are extremely old-fashioned and have to accept the fact that change is inevitable, even though they may not like it. But they do the best they can regardless and try to prepare their family for the changes that are about to occur. Though the film belongs to Lancaster, Delon and Cardinale hold their own and are quite impressive in their respective roles. Cardinale’s and Delon’s characters are not that different from each other. Both are high-spirited and lustful creatures that can’t let go off each other. These characters represent the new age whereas Lancaster’s represent the old. Delon would go on to become a huge star four years later with Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai.
With its sumptuous cinematography, grand production design and colorful characters, The Leopard is a film that provides a one-of-a-kind experience for anyone watching it for the very first time. It’s a lavish historical drama possessing a high level of artistic brilliance and beauty. It’s not just stunning to look at but is also a deep and complex character study providing along with it a vivid depiction of a tumultuous phase in Italy’s past. Those unfamiliar with this part of Italian history might find it a bit difficult to wrap their head around some of the conversations take place in the story. I had to read up a little to know more about some of the characters mentioned in it and this made me appreciate the film more the second time around. This is one of those films that gets better with each viewing. It is undoubtedly Visconti’s greatest masterpiece.