Of the myriad varieties of reasons to revisit a film, one of my absolute favorites is that I wasn't able to process all of it during that first time. Contrary to popular belief, film critics are made, not born, and there was a time in all of our lives when we just weren't mature, informed, or even just old enough to appreciate the details and nuances in certain films. That of course doesn't mean we'll like them better later in life, but at least we'll have better reasons why we can't stand the damn thing.
The Leopard was a film I saw in theaters in the mid-1990s at the behest of one of my college roommates, a guy who read books about string theory like Godel, Escher, Bach for fun. I remember being stricken by it during that initial viewing, not the least of which because of the elaborate, gorgeous production design, and Burt Lancaster's indisputably commanding presence – even in Italian. But I confess that I probably didn't "get" a lot of it, even if I would have insisted at the time that I did.
Subsequently, Luchino Visconti's film became my very first purchase of a release by the wonderful people at Criterion, who soon became my go-to reference for films that I hadn't seen, but should have, even if I wasn't going to be able to understand them. And now, with the release of their glorious, meticulous Blu-ray, it seemed like time to check in and see if I'd learned anything in the fifteen years since I first saw it, and then see if that knowledge would classify The Leopard as a classic or just a classy affair.
The Facts: Originally released in 1963, Visconti's The Leopard endured multiple edits en route to the big screen: after the director assembled a 205 minute cut in his native Italian, he whittled it down to 185 minutes for its theatrical run. While other versions circulated in countries like Spain and France, America saw a 161-minute dubbed version courtesy 20th Century Fox. Nevertheless the film performed well with critics and at numerous festivals, netting the Palme D'Or at Cannes and several awards from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Critics. It currently enjoys a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: Just about everything. Given the number of versions of the film that were produced and released during its theatrical run, one might expect an admirable work of varying quality, perhaps improved by being streamlined or slimmed down via some choice edits. At 185 minutes, which is now the commonly accepted "definitive" version of the film (although Criterion offers the English-dubbed 161-minute version as well), it seems the length it only ever could be, although to experience a film as thorough and lived-in as this one may seem slow on the outside.
Visconti's construction of the film's narrative is as meticulous and painstaking as the period detail, costuming and set design: opening with expansive shots of the estate of 19th Century Sicilian nobleman Prince Don Fabrizio Corbera Salina, the film is a paean to the privilege and affluence of aristocracy, and yet it ultimately shows how this one man's own virtue and honor is infinitely more valuable than any of his possessions, much less his supposed affiliations. For example, the opening scene initially appears to be a tribute or document of religious sacrament as the Prince and his family dutifully recite prayers in the presence of their priest, but that devout attitude quickly gives way to the Prince's practical, perhaps inadvertently hurtful but always scrupulous attitudes as he succumbs to the embrace of a mistress and then explains to the priest how that religious fealty has prevented him from seeing his wife's navel despite having nine children with her.
Although it's his relationships with others that drive the film's plot forward, the Prince is always at the center of the story, and it's his reaction that tethers us both to the movie's moral compass and its emotional foundations. He's easily the smartest character in the film, observing with unerring accuracy the outcome of virtually every conflict, but it's a product of rational thought, not pure omniscience; he repeatedly points out that the political upheavals that he and his family endure are the same as the ones before he was born, and will be the same as the ones after he dies – at least in that the players will ultimately succumb to their personal desires over their political convictions.
Most amazingly, this plays not as cynicism, but self-protection and eventually self-actualization, as the Prince acknowledges that he is part of an aging generation and can do best for himself and his family by sticking to principles that matter and ignoring fleeting associations and inspirations that, as he correctly predicts, disappear even among the younger men whose passion and outrage he supported in the past. That he slowly succumbs to being an "old man" who has evaded or outlived his supposed usefulness is both a tragedy and a thing of beauty, not the least of which because he watches himself advance towards that supposed irrelevance.
Notwithstanding these political and social undercurrents, the ensemble is brilliant on its own merits, and creates an archetypal world where these characters are not only distinctive but define their reality as much as they inhabit it. After the Prince almost bemusedly dismisses his daughter's misplaced affections for a promising young soldier and politician, he suggests the young man needs someone more passionate, less passive than his daughter. The man eventually finds the right woman, played by the incomparable Claudia Cardinale, who gives the daughter of a doofus aristocrat not only the necessary nobility, but the indulgent and irresistible passion, and eventually, dignity that makes their coupling seem right. That a film can contradict expectations and yet feel absolutely natural, if not "right," is a testament to the perfect combination of character, story and performance, and The Leopard synthesizes the three effortlessly and indelibly.
The finale of the film is basically a massive ball that plays out over the course of some 30 or 40 minutes, and it's a miracle of pacing and character development to show the Prince as he begins to slow, as the world begins to pass him by, and he can do little more than nobly acquiesce to new generations both of revolutionaries and corrupt fat cats as they swallow the last vestiges of the life he led while he was in his prime. It's a symphony of color and form and acting and storytelling as the Prince sequesters himself from the rest of the partygoers, only to find himself approached by Cardinale's character, who could in another life have been one of the Prince's conquests. Even as an older man she seems receptive to his power and authority, but it's as if he knows better but allows himself to be seduced anyway, resigning himself to the sad inevitability of mortality, the redundant political cycle, and the generations that must disappear in order to make way for future ones.
What Doesn't Work: In terms of general effectiveness, there isn't anything that flat-out doesn't work, but the rhythms of the film are so deliberate that modern audiences may have a difficult time getting through its complexities and nuances, not to mention its vast, unhurried exploration of its visual world. Truth be told I really like movies where there's time and space to ruminate on the filmmakers' choices and just the world within the film – not having instead to rush headlong to the next plot point – but for modern filmgoers more accustomed to the urgency and fluidity of stories where everything written, performed or shot numbly serves a prosaic dramatic momentum, it can be a test of wills. Unsurprisingly, the film wins, but only at the cost of coercing that viewer to relinquish his or her "hurry up and get one with it" attitude.
Otherwise, I would say that some of Nino Rota's music becomes a little bit repetitive after a while, and in particular during the ball sequence at the end, where long scenes are matched with full compositions performed on screen. Because the sequences themselves are unabridged, the music is similarly complete, covering the entirety of the piece, even if it's just one refrain done over and over. It's the sort of choice born of a desire for authenticity, but one that may or may not serve the story as well. But like the look at pacing above, these are minor quibbles in a film that is otherwise brilliant.
What's The Verdict: The Leopard holds up so well that I'm convinced this is the kind of art that the person who invented the word "masterpiece" had in mind when he or she conceived it. Visconti is a genius and this is just a perfect film from start to finish, regardless of those period details which may offend or turn off younger or less attentive viewers. But it's also a movie that not only rewards but requires multiple viewings, whether you're a neophyte moviegoer or already old enough to appreciate much of it, because the sophistication, subtlety, and depth of the material, the characterizations, and the collective filmmaking are simply too great to digest on just one.
The Leopard looks better than it ever has thanks to Criterion's new Blu-ray, which I'd argue is an essential purchase for any cinephile, but no matter in which version or what format, Visconti's film is phenomenal, and shows you what films are supposed to do – namely, get richer, more complex, more interesting, and more entertaining, the more you watch them.