Historical epics like Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi, and Cleopatra tell us stories about people who changed history. Others–what I call passive epics–concentrate on people whose worlds are changed by the history happening around them. Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur, and Dr. Zhivago fit into this category.
Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film The Leopard takes this passivity even further. The aristocratic, Sicilian protagonists live through a revolution that changes Italy’s government, but their lives are hardly effected, and certainly not for the worst. True, one young man becomes engaged to the daughter of a common-born but wealthy businessman, which would have been unthinkable a generation before. But that causes little conflict because its good for both familie, and besides, they love each other. Since they’re played by Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale, how could they not?
My wife and I caught the new restoration of The Leopard at the Castro Sunday night.
Visconti was an aristocrat by birth but a Marxist by inclination. He clearly understood and sympathized with those born and raised to have absurd entitlement issues, and the film shows considerable nostalgia for the days of fancy balls and peasants who knew their place. But it also understands why this type of life had to go away.
I must admit that I know nothing about the revolution, set at around the same time as our Civil War, portrayed here. I’ll probably look it up and read a bit about it soon.
For a three-hour film where almost nothing happens, The Leopard is remarkably spell-binding. The visuals help immensely. The film was shot in Technirama, the same large-frame, widescreen format used for Sparticus and The Big Country. This yields a fine-grain image with exceptionally saturated colors–perfect for beautiful rooms, ballroom dances, and one well-staged battle scene.
With its baroque proscenium and large screen, the Castro was the perfect place to experience this massive film.
Burt Lancaster’s lead performance as the family patriarch centered the film and held everything together. The producers cast Lancaster against Visconti’s wishes, but the director soon accepted the wisdom of their choice. Even robbed of his voice (his lines were dubbed into Italian), Lancaster gives a brilliant performance–one of the best of an distinguished career. His character is strong but aging, a man who takes charge of everyone and every situation as if it’s second nature. But he’s painfully aware that neither he nor his way of life, both of which survive this revolution, can last forever.
Few stars since the talkie revolution have had as strong a physical presence as Lancaster, or as expressive a face. Initially, the disconnect between Lancaster’s face and someone else’s voice threw me off, but not for long. Whoever dubbed him into Italian did a good job.
The Leopard is a big, bold film about people barely touched by momentous events. It’s graceful in design and shows great sympathy for its flawed characters. I enjoyed it immensely, but I also left the theater wondering whether there was a point to it. After all, if the Communists had allowed Zhivago to maintain his practice unchanged, and he continued to enjoy both his wife and Lara, would we care about him?
The Leopard continues at the Castro today (Monday).