Luchino Visconti was the aristocrat of Italian cinema, and also an avowed Marxist. That fact alone makes his films intriguing, none more so than The Leopard, one of the grandest widescreen historical epics. It stars Burt Lancaster as Prince Salina, the Sicilian leopard of the title, an ageing patrician whose declining fortunes under Garibaldi and the Risorgimento of the 1860s lead him to arrange a financially advantageous marriage between his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) and Angelica, the daughter of a rich merchant (Claudia Cardinale). Lancaster, at first sight an eccentric choice for the part, carries all before him. He often said he based the character on Visconti himself – a man who acknowledged the need for change but increasingly began to regret the vulgarity of the present compared with the past. Oddly, vulgarity is what Visconti’s critics accuse him of, because of the operatic conception of many of his movies, their opulence and their obsessive attention to decor.
Visconti came to the fore in the 40s with Ossessione, adopting the precepts of the neo-realist movement but adding a melodramatic, formalised structure. Later he was to reject neo-realism in favour of a more classical tradition which seemed to defend the humanist literary tradition. The Leopard, for instance, was taken from the novel by Guiseppe di Lampedusa which sought to ruminate on the old versus the new, and to suggest that the best values of the past were at least the equal of and sometimes superior to those of the pseudo-revolutionary present. Fixing this conception with a gimlet eye, Visconti ends his film with a stunning ball scene, in which all his visual powers, his philosophical doubts and ruminations are in evidence. The Leopard must accept that the old order is finished and power has passed to the nouveaux riches. This is a set piece that has rarely been equalled, and the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Unfortunately it was financed by 20th Century Fox who, despite its European acclaim, butchered it comprehensively, releasing a much shorter version that was dubbed and reprocessed. It took 20 years before a fully restored version was released.
Visconti was fortunate to receive fine expressive support both from his cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and the music of Nino Rota. But the triumph is mostly his own because his talents suit the subject so well. There is a sensuousness about the direction that perfectly matched the ideas behind the film, the most sophisticated of which was that, even when the old order was able to reach an accommodation to the new, it brought a kind of corrupting decadence with it. Only the prince escapes this charge because he eventually recognises this bitter truth.
All this was very different from the orthodox Marxism of films like La Terra Trema. But then Visconti was as full of ambiguities as many of his films. He viewed the world as a kind of melodrama in which passion and destiny predominated. And frequently the radical nature of what he was trying to say was almost obliterated by the way he said it. In The Leopard the two came together superbly. Now that we can see it in its full glory, it is probably his greatest film.