The Leopard

Burt Lancaster gives one of cinema's finest performances in Luchino Visconti's masterpiece.



Luchino Visconti must have been born at sunset. Change, decline, and death haunt his films, and in Visconti's greatest pictures, it is impossible to escape the feeling that we are seeing not just a film, but also the self-portrait of a very complicated and anachronistic and sorrowful man.


As a bisexual Marxist aristocrat, Visconti had much to be conflicted about. Born a Count in Italy in 1906, Visconti's ancestry could be traced back to Charlemagne's father-in-law. Visconti came to film later in life, and though his first pictures were great successes—Ossessione (1943), a very melodramatic adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and La Terra Trema (1948), a propagandistic forerunner of the neo-realist movement—it was The Leopard (1963) that marked the beginning of Visconti's overt self-dramatization.


The Leopard has a fascinating history of its own. For decades it has been tantamount to the Holy Grail for art-film lovers, unavailable on video or DVD, and for those fortunate enough to attend a screening, available only in the cut and dubbed American version. But thanks to Criterion, The Leopard is finally available in a pristine restoration that features both the American version and the original 185-minute Italian print.


Based on the Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa novel of the same name, The Leopard stars Burt Lancaster as Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, who, as Visconti biographer Gaia Servadio writes, "in the book represents Lampedusa (the author was an impoverished Sicilian prince) [but] in the film the character portrays Luchino Visconti as impersonated by Lancaster."


The role was originally intended for either Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier—ironic, considering that Lancaster's turn as Salina is now considered one of the perfect castings in film history. Though his voice is overdubbed because he couldn't speak Italian, Lancaster embodies aristocratic weariness. His Salina is a man straddling an abyss, the ever-widening rift between the old and new worlds caused by the mid-19th century revolutions in Europe (some reading on Garibaldi and Italian unification would be helpful before viewing The Leopard).


Though considered by some the greatest film ever made, The Leopard may be too fusty or esoteric for today's audiences. What remains accessible is its opulence. Its conclusion features an hour-long ballroom scene that may never be rivaled.


"We were the leopards, the lions," Salina says. "Those who will take our place will be jackals, hyenas." True both in history and in cinema, for nine years later a film would be released, colored Visconti brown, Brando's jackal to Lancaster's leopard: Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather.


--Joshua Avram

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