"For things to remain the same, everything must change"
Honored on the Vatican film list in the "Art" category, Luchino Visconti's The Leopard is a monumental, melancholy epic to a bygone era.
By Steven D. Greydanus
“Ours is a country of arrangements,” Prince Don Fabrizio Corbera of Salina tells his chaplain, Father Pirrone, in Luchino Visconti’s monumental, melancholy historical epic The Leopard, based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Another translation for “arrangements” is “compromises.”
The year is 1860, toward the end of the wars of the Italian Unification, or Risorgimento. General Garibaldi has just captured Sicily—the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, as it was then known—annexing it as part of what was soon to be called the Kingdom of Italy. Garibaldi had wanted a republic, but had to settle for a constitutional monarchy under Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of the united Italy.
Garibaldi was staunchly anti-Catholic, and two years later attacked Rome, the capital of the papal states governed by Pope Pius IX, though his own government hadn’t sanctioned this and the city was defended by Napoleon’s troops. In 1870, when Napoleon’s troops finally withdrew and Italian forces captured Rome, Pius IX defiantly declared himself a “prisoner in the Vatican”—a status maintained by his successors through Pius XI, when the Lateran Treaty of 1929 recognized the sovereignty of the Holy See, creating the state of Vatican City.
The Leopard is full of such “arrangements” or “compromises.” The arrangement with which Don Fabrizio is principally concerned is the coming détente between his class, the Italian aristocracy, and the popular forces, notably the Piedmontese, who have backed Garibaldi’s conquest of Sicily. Many of Don Fabrizio’s fellow noblemen are fleeing for their lives, but Don Fabrizio believes little real change is imminent. “The middle class doesn’t want to destroy us. They simply want to take our places—and very gently.”
Sure enough, when a contingent of Garibaldi’s volunteer Redshirt forces arrive at Don Fabrizio’s palatial villa, they come as sightseers, even addressing the prince as “Excellency.” As they gaze up at the famous frescoes gracing the ceilings, the prince names the various larger-than-life mythological figures hovering above them: Jupiter and Juno, Mars, Venus and Mercury, Thetis and Apollo—”all of them,” Don Fabrizio adds, pointing out the coat of arms, “glorifying the house of Salina.” Another “arrangement”: the gods of antiquity glorifying the lords of today (soon yesterday).
One comes, like these Redshirts, as a cultural sightseer to The Leopard, with its palatial grandeur, replete with lavish, painterly images of the bygone glory of the Italian aristocracy: already in their own day semi-mythological figures, as we see in a vignette in which Father Pirrone, tries to explain to the common people the mysterious ways of the nobility: “They live in a world apart, not created by God, but by themselves.”
Visconti’s cinematic monument to the past is not, like Don Fabrizio’s architectural one, uncritically adulatory. The film’s elegiac ode to a bygone age of gentility and refinement, its epic sweep and battlefield sequences, and its elevated soap-opera goings-on among a bygone aristocracy have led many to dub it an Italian Gone With the Wind.
Also like Gone With the Wind, The Leopard is based on a popular novel by an heir of the old aristocracy, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. The Leopard was also, as Gone With the Wind was not, directed by another heir to this aristocracy. What The Leopard has that Gone With the Wind has not is perspective on the failings and dysfunctions in the culture that is passing away: a culture dying from within.
Where Gone With the Wind sentimentalized the Old South as a “land of Cavaliers” where “Gallantry took its last bow…the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave,” The Leopard has its protagonist give this bitter, oft-quoted epitaph for his class: “We were the leopards, the lions. Those who replace us will be the jackals, the hyenas. And all of us—leopards, lions, jackals and sheep—will continue to think ourselves the salt of the earth.”
The Leopard has this perspective because the protagonist is the aging prince Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster), and not, say, his charming, ambitious nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), a man who “moves with the times.” Tancredi, a bit like Scarlett O’Hara, is initially attracted to a respectable but mild-mannered aristocrat—the prince’s own daughter Concetta, who is smitten with Tancredi—but ultimately falls for a more exciting if less than entirely seemly admirer.
That would be the alluring Angelica Sedàra (Claudia Cardinale), whose father, the mayor of Donnafugata, makes up in means what he lacks in breeding. Tancredi and Angelica are both strikingly attractive, and the pull each feels toward the other is obvious. Yet the arrangement is ultimately made by their elders, for pragmatic reasons: The mayor covets the prestige of marrying into aristocracy for his daughter, while Don Fabrizio recognizes that in this age of equals his nephew’s heritage will not serve his ambitions so well as Angelica’s family fortune.
How the aging Italian prince came to be played, in the most acclaimed performance of his career, by Burt Lancaster is another arrangement. Compared to Visconti’s earlier, neorealist work, or most European films at this time, this rococo period piece, with all its meticulously accurate pageantry—above all the legendary ball sequence occupying the final three-quarters of an hour—required an exorbitant budget. With Hollywood funding came a Hollywood star: “a cowboy,” Visconti reportedly groaned.
Yet arrangements sometimes turn out happier than expected. Despite the dubbing of his dialogue by a Sicilian actor (Corrado Gaipa) in the Italian version of the film, Lancaster dominates the film through his commanding bearing, body language and facial expressiveness. Reportedly modeling his performance after the aristocratic Visconti himself, Lancaster gives what could be a silent film performance, embodying wary, weary dignity, class and strength. (It helps that Gaipa delivers the Italian lines with a minimum of fuss, allowing Lancaster to create the character through his physicality.)
The aging prince’s virility is a force that makes itself felt on everyone in his orbit. It’s inevitable that Fr. Pirrone, both a beneficiary of and, subtly, a compromised party to his pastoral “arrangement” with Don Fabrizio, is somewhat diminished in the shadow of this powerful, commanding figure. As chaplain to the prince’s household, the priest shepherds a loyal flock amid comfortable surroundings, and has the freedom to exhort and even rebuke the great man. But Don Fabrizio is ultimately in charge; the priest is at his beck and call.
In the opening sequence the prince shamelessly drags his chaplain on a carriage ride into town, a pious cover for a visit to his kept woman—yet another arrangement. (Or is the arrangement his marriage to the pious, prudish princess Maria Stella, of whom he complains bitterly that she bookends every nuptial embrace with the sign of the cross and the ejaculation Gesù-Maria, and that, after all their years of marriage and seven children, he has never seen her navel? “Is that right?” Don Fabrizo protests to Fr. Pirrone. “She’s the sinner!”) Later, after a bath, Don Fabrizio presses the uncomfortable cleric into service to help dry him. In a humorous coda, after the prince leaves the room, the priest furtively experiments with the prince’s cologne.
The Italian Church as a whole is in a similar position vis-à-vis the aristocracy, but now that times are changing, the nobility consider the temporal interests and property of both parties to be bargaining chips in the current unrest. To make that transition as gentle as possible, the nobility will make whatever arrangements are necessary, including the disbursement of church property to the rising middle class.
Fr. Pirrone is outraged that the wealth of the Church—”the patrimony of the poor,” he calls it—will be disbursed to the revolutionaries, but Don Fabrizio gives this the most pious possible reading: The Church, he says, is promised immortality, and with this promise come trans-temporal obligations; the aristocracy have no such guarantees, and their obligations are lesser.
The logic is flawed, but the premise undeniable. In a much-noted sequence, the Salinas attend a Mass at Donnafugata, where they have a summer home. The camera pans down from the church’s elaborate statuary and relief work to the golden-vested clergy and altar servers in red shoulder capes — then cuts to the Salinas in their choir seats, drably clad and looking more like the statues than the peasant worshipers in the next shot.
The end of the old order begins in violence, with the sweeping battle scenes of Garibaldi’s conquest of Sicily, but it culminates in festivity, in the extravagant ball sequence famously dominating the final hour of the film. (Critic Dave Kehr contends that Visconti “films the battle as if it were a ball” and “the ball as if it were a battle.”)
For all the opulence and visual beauty of this celebrated sequence, with its swirling crinoline and taffeta, its countless burning candles and fluttering fans, a sense of death pervades the proceedings. The ball represents the old aristocracy “taking its final bow,” rubbing shoulders for the first time with the middle class. Don Fabrizio stalks from one lavishly appointed room to another, an awkward ghost out of time.
Even the members of his own class repel him: “I was just thinking these frequent marriages between cousins do not improve the stock,” he grumbles, watching a bevy of begowned girls bouncing on an immense bed. “Look at them—they look like monkeys ready to clamber up the chandelier.” Wandering into a retiring-room, he is confronted by an array of chamber-pots, the offensive end product of all the revelry and feasting.
Finally Tancredi and Angelica find him contemplating a painting by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, identified as Death of a Just Man. (The painting, which depicts a prodigal son returning home too late and receiving his dying father’s curse rather than a blessing, is actually called The Father’s Curse: The Punished Son.) Here the prince is briefly roused to a semblance of his accustomed virility by sharing a dance with Angelica, but in the end this is another reminder of his mortality.
“For things to remain the same, everything must change.” This key line is comes early in the film, but at the end, walking darkened streets amid ruins shattered by war, Don Fabrizio longs for the eternal. He briefly finds solace in two encounters with icons of permanence — a priest carrying the Blessed Sacrament and a star in the night sky — but for the prince in that moment the things that endure are only reminders of all that has passed away.
Note on age appropriateness: The Leopard is mature viewing.