How fitting that The Leopard was released in 1963. In the midst of the French New Wave – with its young antiheroes, guerrilla filmmaking techniques and overall disdain for the establishment – came this magnificently appointed, three-hour ode to the fading aristocracy of 1860s Italy. The movie eloquently echoed the changing of the guard that was taking place within the cinema itself.
The Leopard also won the Golden Palm at Cannes – a nod, perhaps, to the internationally acclaimed status of its director, Luchino Visconti – but also, surely, a bow toward tradition.
The Leopard certainly has its ornate merits. Every frame is ambitious – from the wide vistas of the Sicilian countryside to the courtly, elegant interiors – and Visconti’s pacing allows his movie to luxuriate in each moment. Watching it can feel like taking an indulgent bubble bath – albeit one in which the fragrance from the soap is overwhelming.
Serenely at the center of the film is an unlikely face. Burt Lancaster stars as Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, a middle-aged aristocrat trying to preserve his family’s privileged way of life, even amidst impending political turmoil. Menacingly virile in most roles – think of From Here to Eternity – Lancaster turns his masculinity inward here. He’s still imposing (even while wearing a white nightgown), yet always in the manner of a man of tradition. Near the end, he even appears to suffer a slight stroke with decorum and tact.
Lancaster’s prince is a clear precursor to Brando’s Godfather. Indeed, you can see how Visconti’s sweep and style influenced Francis Ford Coppola, whose masterpiece was only nine years away. Yet Coppola saw the Corleone family coolly, from a distance, while Visconti (who came from a privileged family himself) depicts the prince’s predicament as a tragic tale.
This vantage point gives the movie a sad, almost funereal, undercurrent. When the prince’s family arrives at one of their palaces after a long journey and heads directly to Mass, they sit in the pew covered in gray dust from the road. Visconti pans down the row, lingering on each ashen face. They’re living corpses, the image suggests, ghastly figures from the past who are haunting Italy’s political future.
Not much different, in fact, from the way The Leopard haunted the French New Wave.