The Leopard: Blu-ray of the Year (so far)

This is what Blu-ray was made for.

I know that the special effect-laden sci-fi extravaganzas and action epics are what really drive home theater sales, with fans wanting to get theatrical presentation muscle into their home. But that’s all about showmanship (not that there’s anything wrong with that). What really sends me to heaven is watching a presentation of a cinema masterwork with the clarity, richness and integrity of a perfect 35mm presentation. Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), quite simply one of my all time favorite films, is one of those masterworks and Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition (freshly mastered from a stunning print with unparalleled color and crispness) is as perfect a home video incarnation as anyone could hope for and better than any theatrical screening I’ve have the pleasure to experience.

Burt Lancaster leads the dance
Burt Lancaster leads the dance

I believe that Visconti’s 1963 adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel is his masterpiece. Burt Lancaster (his voice is dubbed by a deep-voiced Italian) may seem an unusual choice to play Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, an idealistic 19th century Sicilian prince (Visconti favored Laurence Olivier, a much more conventionally regal choice), but his confidence, his gravitas, and his understated cat-like grace as he walks through the world as if he owned it, creates a character of great authority and even greater melancholy. With the impoverished island nation of Sicily on the verge of revolutionary change and reform, Salina places his hope in this revolution to wipe away the corrupt ruling aristocracy (of which he is himself a member) and his upstart nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), who fights for a unified Italy with Garibaldi’s Red Shirts. “For things to remain the same, everything must change,” proclaims Tancredi as he sets off to join the revolution. Salina is publicly against the war but privately sympathetic and he sees Tancredi as the future of this country, or at least of his family, which is mired in a sinkhole of decadence and irrelevance.

Lancaster’s Salina is both above the world and within it. He takes his place as an authority figure in the aristocracy with dignity even as he mourns its inbred impotence, and nowhere more beautifully than the magnificent finale. The farsighted Salina has arranged for Tancredi’s future with a beneficial marriage to the beautiful (if raw) daughter of the gauche Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), a landowner buying his way into society and into political power. That his daughter, Angelica, is played by Claudia Cardinale as an earthy beauty with crude manners as honest and direct as they are inappropriate to police society, only cinches the deal: two of the most beautiful people in international cinema circa 1963 bring on the marriage of class and power, old blood and new money. It couldn’t be more perfect.

The society ball of the finale becomes the now-tutored Angelica’s official induction into society and (as Dave Kehr so beautifully explores in his New York Times piece) the closing bracket to the battle scene of the first act. Running 45 minutes (fully a quarter the three-hour film’s running time), it is both metaphor for and illustration of the failure of all of Salina’s hopes. The revolution has been co-opted, Tancredi’s idealism swapped for opportunism and the new order revealed as glib and shallow and greedy as the decaying old world of social graces and empty ritual. Visconti’s elegant, gliding long takes through the amazing sets tells the same story on a purely visual level, a study in a world of empty surfaces and meaningless manners.

On Blu-ray, the human detail is all the more apparent as we can make out everything from the details of dress to the faces and gestures of almost everyone in a given scene, and the physical details of his world are shown with crystal clarity, from the tiles of roofs in the town down the hill from the Prince’s palace to the designs of the wallpaper, the etchings on the goldleaf and the metalwork of the candelabras of the palace where the ball of the final act takes place. Apart from the sheer beauty of the film, this clarity draws us deeper into the frame and the dramatic detail, even if Visconti’s aloof camera remains a distant observer of the world.

Visconti’s unusual pedigree—a dedicated Communist raised (and at the time of his filmmaking still living) within the Italian aristocracy—gives his portraits of the high society (past and present) a unique sensibility. I can only guess at the documentary authenticity of his recreations of manner and ritual but the richness of detail he brings to the human interactions and social currency creates a mesmerizing verisimilitude, a world that is completely believable and consistent enough to make any aberrations startlingly apparent. Meanwhile, his politics carry an inherent criticism of the very lifestyle he so painstakingly puts on display. There is both loving nostalgia and conflicted enmity in the direction, a respect for such grace and a disgust for its decadence.

Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon dance into the new order
Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon dance into the new order

Lancaster’s Prince wanders the landscape of power and society, aloof from it all until he waltzes with Angelica, giving his approval to her ascension while displaying the easy grace and unforced command of his position. But it’s a bittersweet moment; while his family once cringed at her peasant manners, I saw in his smiles an appreciation for her earthy way, a fresh injection of candor and authenticity in a fossilized world. Now she too has been co-opted, sliding into her social role at the cost of her fiery will, while her petit bourgeois father can only converse in terms of monetary value: he tries to put a price tag on the lavish display of riches before him. The aging Prince sees his dream crumble at the coronation of the next generation of opportunists and slips away, along with his impotent idealism, into the world of shadows. You might say that the entire film is a dance to the music of time, but neither the music nor the steps change. They simply swap partners and continue dancing in their bubble of privilege.

The Blu-ray debut features the 185-minute Italian theatrical version remastered in high-definition from the original negative (not, as Kehr helpfully point out, the recent restoration undertaken by The Film Foundation) supervised by director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno. I’ve never seen the film look this beautiful.

The supplements are all ported over from Criterion’s DVD release. film scholar Peter Cowie provides commentary and a second disc features the 161-minute American release supervised by Burt Lancaster (whose own voice can finally be heard), which is not merely shorter; the script translation softens the politics and social conflicts of the film. Also includes the hour-long documentary A Dying Breed: The Making of The Leopard, featuring interviews with Claudia Cardinale, screenwriter Suso Ceccho D’Amico, cinematographer Guiseppe Rotunno, and Sydney Pollack (who worked with Burt Lancaster on the American dub version) among others, video interviews with producer Goffredo Lombardo and Professor Millicent Marcus of the University of Pennsylvania (on the history behind The Leopard), stills gallery, original trailers and newsreels and a booklet.

More reviews by Dave Kehr at the New York Times, Sam Adams in the LA Times and DVD Savant Glenn Erickson and a technical review and comparisons between releases at DVD Beaver.

Follow up Dave Kehr’s review of The Leopard with the conversation playing out in the comments section of his blog here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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