The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) [DVD]
Director : Luchino Visconti
Screenplay : Suso Cecchi d'Amico & Pasquale Festa Campanile and Enrico Medioli & Massimo Franciosa and Luchino Visconti (based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1963
Stars : Burt Lancaster (Prince Don Fabrizio Salina), Claudia Cardinale (Angelica Sedara / Bertiana), Alain Delon (Tancredi Falconeri), Paolo Stoppa (Don Calogero Sedara), Rina Morelli (Princess Maria Stella Salina), Romolo Valli (Father Pirrone), Mario Girotti (Count Cavriaghi), Pierre Clémenti (Francesco Paolo), Lucilla Morlacchi (Concetta)
Luchino Visconti’s opulent historical epic The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) is, along with Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1964) and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1967), one of the great European-American art films of the 1960s. After the 1950s saw the increasing popularity of ambiguous and artful European films, major American studios began investing quite heavily in overseas productions, resulting in a unique era of cross-cultural filmmaking that often combined the best of Hollywood and Europe. As Peter Lev argues in his excellent book The Euro-American Cinema, these productions, particularly the ones made in the mid-1960s, were “tremendously varied attempts to reconcile Europe and America, art and entertainment.”
The Leopard stands out not only for its bold vision and epic scope, but because of the intricate ways in which it melds pop melodrama, historical sweep, and bold cinematic artistry. Director Luchino Visconti was a towering figure of the postwar Italian cinema, although at the time he was known primarily for his neorealist works, particularly 1948’s La Terra trema and 1960’s Rocco and His Brothers. He had evidenced a flair for romanticism in many of his films, and this emerges full-blown in The Leopard.
Based on a popular 1958 novel by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa, The Leopard tells the saga of an aristocratic Sicilian family facing sweeping historical and political changes in the mid-19th century. The story takes place during the Risorgimento, a decades-spanning political and social revolution that culminated in the unification of Italy in 1861, forever changing the country. For the film’s lead character, the aging Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster), it means that his way of life—that of the powerful aristocrat, insulated with wealth and prestige—was coming to an end.
The new Italy, one of which he and his ilk can never be a part of, is seen in his dashing young nephew, Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), who is like a son to Don Fabrizio. Tancredi is, like Don Fabrizio, a child of wealth and privilege, yet he still goes out and fights in the streets with the revolutionaries. He eventually takes as his wife Angelica Sedara (Claudia Cardinale), who is the daughter of Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), the mayor of the villa where the Salinas spend their summers. Angelica is incredibly beautiful, but she is not a daughter of aristocracy, and her marriage to Tancredi is yet another means by which the Italian aristocracy began to crumble, as Tancredi can marry for wealth outside the old world of the aristocrats.
In a sense, The Leopard is a contradiction of a film, one whose point of view is rooted in two opposing camps. On the one hand, we get the sense that the film is an elegy for the aristocracy, artfully bemoaning its death. The great Don Fabrizio is a powerful, commanding figure who is kept consistently human, and in him we see so much potential greatness slowly fading into obscurity. It’s impossible not to feel a twinge of sadness as this great leopard, as he refers to himself, is slowly taken down by a world of jackals and hyenas. Yet, at the same time, the kind of life the Salinas lead is one that is based on the impoverishment of others, and much of the Risorgimento was about leveling the social and economic playing field, thus it’s not something we should necessarily mourn. The death of the lives led by men like Don Salina was a necessary corrective to massive inequities.
This fascinating contradiction shouldn’t come as much surprise because they essentially reflect Luchino Visconti, who was himself born into an aristocratic family, yet identified himself throughout life as a communist. His love of both the upper class and the lower class is evident throughout the film, and he brings a great sense of depth and richness to the depiction of social rituals that define the lives of all the major characters (Martin Scorsese was greatly influenced by The Leopard when he made The Age of Innocence). The film brings to life the lush decadence of the aristocratic lifestyle, never more so than in the epic 45-minute ball sequence that ends the film. In this sequence, we get a metonym for the entire film, with the new supplanting the old.
Always at the center of the film is Burt Lancaster’s performance as Don Fabrizio, which anchors the story and the conflicting emotions that swirl around it. Interestingly enough, Lancaster was not Visconti’s choice for the role (he wanted Laurence Olivier), and Lancaster was hired by 20th Century-Fox, the U.S. co-financier, without his approval. (The Euro-American films of the 1960s frequently made use of well-known American performers in crucial roles.)
Yet, despite Visconti’s initial reluctance to embrace Lancaster in the role (he referred to him as “that American gangster”), it turned out to be a great choice, as Lancaster brings not only his commandingly masculine presence to the screen, but also a deeply nuanced understanding of a great man being slowly torn down from beneath. He gives the film its sense of tragedy, not because of the loss of the aristocratic lifestyle (even with all the sweeping changes, vestiges of it would remain for decades), but because of the loss of identity suffered by men like Don Fabrizio. The symbolic final shot of him walking alone into a darkened alleyway is among the most poetic and moving of final images in any film, European or American.
|The Leopard Criterion Collection Special Edition Three-Disc DVD Set|
|Aspect Ratio||2.21:1 (Italian version)|
2.35:1 (English version)
|Audio||Italian Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural |
English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie|
A Dying Breed: The Making of the Leopard retrospective documentary
Interview with producer Geoffredo Lombardo
Video interview with history professor Millicent Marcus
Original theatrical trailer
Gallery of production photos
Essay by Michael Wood
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||June 8, 2004|
| For many years, The Leopard has been one of the most frequently requested foreign films not yet available on DVD in the U.S., and those who have clamored for it will be more than pleased with the outstanding job Criterion has done in this exquisite three-disc set. Always the consummate completists, Criterion presents The Leopard in two different versions on separate discs: the original 185-minute Italian-language version and the pared-down 161-minute English-language version. Both high-definition transfers are outstanding, although the Italian version has a bit of an edge since it was transferred from the original 35mm 8-perforation negative and supervised by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno. It was also given the MTI Digital Restoration treatment, which has resulted in a nearly perfect image. The film’s rich, earthy colors are very well reproduced, as are the finest details of the film’s loving attention to the intricacies of the aristocratic lifestyle and the rough beauty of the Sicilian countryside. The English version was transferred from a 4-perforation 35mm interpositive. |
The Italian version is presented in a 2.21:1 aspect ratio, while the English version is in 2.35:1. This is because the film was shot in Super Technirama 70, a process in which 35mm film is passed through the camera horizontally, resulting in an anamorphic negative image aspect ratio of 2.21:1, which could then be easily blown up to 70mm for roadshowing. When the film was printed on regular 35mm film, the image had to be formatted at the traditional 2.35:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio. Thus, The Leopard was shown theatrically in both aspect ratios depending on whether it was shown in 35mm or 70mm.
|Both versions of the film are presented in Dolby Digital monaural and sound very good for their age. As the film was shot with an international cast speaking several different languages, both versions make significant use of postproduction dubbing. For my money, the Italian version is much better than the English version, even though the latter features Burt Lancaster’s actual voice. There is just something more authentic about the Italian language version, while the English dialogue sounds, well, dubbed.|
|Film scholar Peter Cowie gives us another one of his excellent audio commentaries on the three-hour Italian version of the film. For the entire duration, Cowie gives an exhaustive analysis of the film that also includes biographical information about all the major players, the differences between the film’s long and short versions, and crucial historical and cultural background that must be understood thoroughly if one is to truly appreciate the film. Cowie also spends a great deal of time comparing the film version to the source novel, which provides some intriguing examples of how literature is translated to the screen. |
While discs one and three of this three-disc set are given over to the two versions of the film, the middle disc is reserved entirely for supplementary material. Things kick off with the hour-long retrospective documentary A Dying Breed: The Making of The Leopard, which features new interviews with star Claudia Cardinale, screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico, cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, and American director Sydney Pollack, who was responsible for overseeing the English language dubbing. Also on this disc is a great video interview with University of Pennsylvania history professor Millicent Marcus, who gives a detailed, but succinct historical overview of the period in which The Leopard is set, thus giving crucial historical context to the drama. The disc is rounded out with original theatrical trailers (both Italian and American), a stills gallery of rare production photographs, and newsreels of the film’s premiere. All in all, this is a magnificent DVD that gives an extraordinary film its much deserved due.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and Atlantic-Film S.A.