One of the many trends I’ve noticed as we do Criterion Month each year is that not only have these months deepened my knowledge of film history, but it has also done the same for the history of some of the countries whose films we’ve covered. More specifically, there have been a number of period pieces I’ve had to review that have covered turbulent eras in their country of origin that I previously had little knowledge of. I’m thinking of the clashing between leftists and fascists of ’60s Greece in Z, the pre-economic boom, post-World War II years of Taiwan in A Brighter Summer Day, and the Algerian rebellion against the French government covered in The Battle of Algiers. Well, you can now add The Leopard to that list, a film that depicts a period in Italian history known as the Risorgimento, which saw the unification of different smaller states that would eventually make up what we now know as Italy.
The particular state that the film focuses on is Sicily in the 1860s, where Don Fabrizio Corbera (played by Burt Lancaster) presides as the Prince of Salina while enjoying all of the comfort and responsibility that royalty are bestowed. In the film’s opening scene, we see Don Fabrizio at a Catholic service at his gigantic estate with his family and servants when the sounds of war are heard faintly in the background. This is because the insurgent volunteer fighters of Giuseppe Girabaldi’s army have declared war on Sicily in the hopes of unification. Don Fabrizio is a bit surprised that his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) has joined the fighters despite the lavish life of leisure that he and his uncle have been granted. However, the film makes it apparent that despite the inherent conservatism of being royalty, the Prince and his family are more concerned with preservation than with tying themselves to tradition or institutions.
Most of the film’s first third encompasses the war between the two sides, which culminates in a pretty well-staged battle scene as well as the retreat of the Prince and his family from his estate. After an election that sees the nationalists winning power, Don Fabrizio and his family return to his home, though not before a political contemporary’s daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) catches the eye of his nephew. Most of the film’s middle section concerns Tancredi courting Angelica, while Don Fabrizio does a lot of ruminating on his age and importance in the face of a changing world. This then culminates in a roughly 40-minute sequence set at a lavish ball, where we see the juxtaposition of tradition with the exuberance of youth, as Don Fabrizio can’t help but look on and think his days are numbered, though this subsides during one final dance with Angelica before she marries Tancredi.
What is unusual about The Leopard is that it was a rare joint-production between a Hollywood studio (20th Century Fox) and an Italian one (Titanus). This most likely was due to the fact that it was based on a novel that was a huge deal in Italy and also happened to come out during a period where Italian cinema was at its most prominent worldwide (as you could probably gather from the multiple Italian films we’ve reviewed in the past week). This is how a Hollywood star like Burt Lancaster and a French hunk like Alain Delon ended up in a movie that is otherwise very Italian. This resulted in Lancaster doing all of his dialogue in English, which was used in the shortened American version but dubbed over in the 3-hour Italian release, which was the version I watched since it seemed to have a better reputation.
The easiest question to ask of any film that breaches the 3-hour mark is whether it earns its length, and I would say that The Leopard does for the most part. At the very least, it’s hard to imagine a film that’s this extravagant and this ambitious being trimmed down to a more accessible length. While the film does drag in a few spots and gets a little bogged down in the somewhat impenetrable nature of its subject matter, it’s carried along nicely by the way it humanizes characters from a social class and background that couldn’t be less relatable. Additionally, the film’s cinematography and the way it shoots its many characters across the backdrop of southern Italy feels very much akin to the David Lean epics of the era, while Nino Rota’s score brings a nice mix of scope and fancifulness to the film’s tone.
Though what really keeps The Leopard from becoming a stuffy costume drama is the central performance of Burt Lancaster. He’s an actor I’ve always loved watching for the sheer world-weariness he brings to any character, no matter what era of his career you’re seeing him in. So an aristocrat who knows that a changing world will inevitably crush his comfortable existence feels like prime Lancaster. It’s a little hard for me to believe that when it came out, American reviews of the film roasted Lancaster’s performance, though maybe they were just distracted by his over-the-top eyebrows and mutton chops (which for the record, I dig). But whatever the case, he brings such pathos to the role and does such a great job of imbuing the character with internal strife over the changes going on in his kingdom that you easily forget that he isn’t the faintest bit Italian. Or Sicilian for that matter.