The Leopard's 2003 restoration

The Leopard (Il Gattopardo)
Directed by Luchino Visconti
Written by Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Luchino Visconti and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
205 minutes, rated PG
4.5 stars

“We were the leopards, the lions, but those who will replace us will be jackals and hyenas.” So says Burt Lancaster, with bitter poise, in Luchino Visconti’s 1963 masterpiece. Burt is an ageing nobleman, witnessing the end of the aristocracy as Italy stumbles toward unification in the 1860s.

It’s a measure of the greatness of Visconti’s film – which has never looked so good as in this new print (writing in 2003) – that we not only believe Burt Lancaster as a Sicilian prince but sympathise with his bitterness. This is an actor famed for his physical earthiness, his tough American equality, but here the prince is lamenting the passing of a way of life that even he hardly believes in. Neither did the director, one of the film’s many contradictions.

Visconti was immensely rich, a northern aristocrat and a communist. He was also gay. He had a large estate himself, with servants, but he believed the old ways had to be swept away.

The Leopard is about how hard that is. As such, it’s hardly utopian socialism. More like Italian fatalism, the wisdom of a country in which change is always happening and nothing ever changes. It’s a film with an ancient and profound sense of the intractability of human nature.

This is the film’s main idea, in fact. “If we want everything to remain like it is, everything must change,” says Don Fabrizio, prince of Salina (Lancaster). Over the next three hours, we come to see what he means.

It is 1860, as Garibaldi’s tiny army lands in Sicily, marching forth to unify the country. The prince and his large family are at mass in their private chapel, a breeze fanning the lace curtains, when there is a commotion outside. A young soldier’s body has been found in the grounds. Civil war has arrived.

The prince’s idealistic nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) announces that he is going to join Garibaldi. The prince’s oldest daughter weeps. She loves Tancredi. He sets off in high spirits, wearing a faintly ridiculous corduroy suit and feathered hunting cap.

There’s a lot of this gentle mockery in the film, but not just of the aristocracy. Visconti reserves a special scorn for the lower orders, especially those who would seek to creep a bracket – men like Don Calogero (Paolo Stoppa), the mayor of Donnafugata, where the Salinas go to their country home. He has money but no class and the true aristocrats laugh at him.

What he does have is Claudia Cardinale as his daughter, Angelica. Then 25, Cardinale wasn’t new to movies but she looks it here. She arrives in the film like a force of nature, playing a shiny, plump-breasted pigeon, an 18-year-old peasant goddess squeezed into a corset and fine silk.

The prince hosts the usual sumptuous dinner the night they arrive in Donnafugata and Visconti films Angelica as though she’s the main course – which, in a sense, she is. Back from the war, Tancredi falls for her instantly, a match that Don Fabrizio encourages for the access it will give Tancredi to Don Calogero’s money. On a deeper level, it’s vicarious – Fabrizio’s a little in love with her too.

The film is rife with sublime beauty and grubby motives, reflected in both characters and setting. Delon and Cardinale, with beauty that is staggering, are both vulgarians. The prince adores them, even as he sees their blemishes. They glow with youth, while he is beginning to creak with age, though he’s only 45.

Burt Lancaster’s portrayal of a physically potent man preparing for death is probably the film’s most lasting impression, even more so because Visconti won’t allow him to give a Burt Lancaster performance.

Visconti wanted Laurence Olivier to play the part but had to take Lancaster because the money came from Twentieth Century Fox. The gay count and the American hunk did not get on initially but Lancaster is magnificent in the role, partly because he is often subdued. It’s a much more internal performance than he usually gave in his American pictures, and the dubbed Italian actually helps, because it removes the famous voice and diction.

Not that it helped the film’s fate. Fox cut it, redubbed it into English and printed it on poor stock, robbing it of some of the beautiful colour. This is the second restoration we’ve seen here in the past 15 years, but this one was supervised by Giuseppe Rotunno, who shot it. No-one who loves movies will want to miss it.

Postscript: while not a trailer as such, the clip above gives a beautiful sense of what restoration can achieve, with silky voice of Scorsese as narrator, as the image gradually changes back to its former glory.