Saturday, June 4, 2011

#235: The Leopard

(Luchino Visconti, 1963)


The Leopard is certainly one of the most ambitious films I have watched so far. At over three hours (and still incomplete, with missing footage yet to be restored), the film guides us through countless gilded rooms, over battlegrounds and around darkened corners of Sicilian villages. It features three legendary figures in film history, the incomparable Burt Lancaster, the smoldering Claudia Cardinale, and the iconic Alain Delon. It centers in on the crucial moment in Italian history when the independent states such as Sicily were unified as a national whole, but it is truly concerned with the death of a world, the kingdom of the aristocracy. It is large. It contains multitudes.

Aside from being an epic of the highest and rarest degree (there are probably only two or three films as massive as this made every decade) The Leopard is also one of the best movies I have watched during this quest, which is to say it's one of the best movies I have ever seen. Dripping with detail and packed full of complex ideas and ideals, the film is endlessly fascinating - it was three hours, but I could have easily watched three more. Lancaster is so in charge of his role that it's sometimes easy to forget that he is being dubbed in Italian - an international star was necessary for the film's massive budget, but Lancaster was not Visconti's first choice and in fact was cast without his consent, though the two ended up working beautifully together, as demonstrated by the final product. He is able to reveal with the most subtle movements his character's loyalties, and he manages to be both intimidating and quietly resigned to obsolescence.

Perhaps the most natural comparison to The Leopard is Gone with the Wind. Also adapted from a novel set in the 1860s during a country's most defining (r)evolution, Gone with the Wind is equally impressive in its scope. But that earlier film, still the highest grossing movie ever made, suffers from overly simplistic characterizations and a Hollywood-style dedication to the empty spectacle (they were so anxious to get their rocks off with the burning of Atlanta sequence that it was made before they had even cast Vivien Leigh). In contrast, The Leopard is entirely focused on the decline of spectacle and the folly of such pursuits. Both movies have complex relationships with their protagonists, but only The Leopard chooses to face this complexity head on, making it a total pleasure to watch because the film is rich in character instead of obsessed with stereotypes.

This can all be traced back to Luchino Visconti, who had the talent and vision to complete such a massive undertaking. The biggest difference between a film like The Leopard and countless pseudo epics that pass themselves off as sprawling masterpieces is that a sure hand shines through in every frame. There are so many times during The Leopard when the camera confidently glides down a hallway or takes in a room that can only call to mind the tired cliché of "breathtaking." Visconti's blocking and framing are impeccable, and often reminded me of his Japanese contemporaries Kurosawa and Kobayashi. But most of all, his work is able to contain the massive presence of such spectacular performances by notable stars, forming a complete whole that feels like a contemporary event without taking away from its thematics.

The idea that this movie was slashed to pieces by American distributors is truly horrifying - I honestly don't know if I could sit through the English version of the film, though I do plan to try eventually and praise Criterion for including it in the set (just as I curse Netflix for only featuring the English version on streaming - let's all hope Hulu knows better). The Leopard deserves - demands - to be seen in Italian at Visconti's preferred length, just as any film lover deserves to experience its full beauty. Stunning and awe-inspiring, this one will stick with me for a long time.

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