Directed by Luchino Visconti’s
There aren’t many three-hour films that engage us so completely that they’re over before we’ve even been aware of the time passing. Certainly “The Godfather” is one, and a second film that was as famous as “The Godfather” in its day but is now almost totally forgotten is Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film “The Leopard,” starring of all people Burt Lancaster.
The film has just been released in its original form as a DVD by that amazing company the Criterion Collection. It was made from Lampedusa’s novel “The Leopard,” and how Lancaster came to star in this most Italian of films is a story in itself, but as it happens Twentieth Century-Fox backed the film only if Visconti agreed to use an American star, and Lancaster turned out to be exactly the right person to play it.
It’s the middle of the nineteenth century in Sicily, and Garibaldi has just started his revolution that will unify Italy for the first time. Lancaster plays Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina. He’s one of the last of the traditional noblemen, the ones who had always ruled Sicily, and unlike most of the others he’s quite aware that his time is about to pass, but he doesn’t quite know exactly how it will happen. His own children are never going to have the stature to continue Don Fabrizio’s rule, but he has a nephew, Tancredi – played by the young and beautiful Alain Delon -- who just might carry on. But Tancredi is a hothead and an opportunist who manages to join Garibaldi’s army but switches sides when he sees that the Royalists will win.
The wealthy mayor, a nouveau-riche commoner, has a beautiful daughter, Angelica – played by Claudia Cardinale – whom Tancredi sees and wants to marry, and she stirs the same feeling in Don Fabrizio, who of course is much older, already married for many years, and could never have her. But the climax of the film is something that only Visconti could carry off. It is a ball at the Prince’s palace, in which we follow Lancaster as he moves from room to room, watching people and knowing that it is what you might call a last dance, a last moment for the old order, until finally Angelica, who is also attracted to him, manages to have a dance with him. The scene lasts forty-five minutes but you will never be aware of the time; only of the forces of history and the unrequited love of two people at work. Roger Ebert says, “The cinema at its best can give us the illusion of living another life, and that is what happens here.”
It’s almost superfluous to say that “The Leopard” could never be made today, in a world of quick cuts superimposed on tiny stories, but you should see this film as an example of what the great films used to be like.