The Leopard


Directed by Luchino Visconti. Starring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale, Serge Reggiani, Mario Girotti, Pierre Clementi 15A cert, 195 mins

IT’S IMPOSSIBLE to attempt a summation of Visconti’s depiction of a fading aristocracy without reaching for big adjectives such as “sumptuous” and “lavish”. Everything about the film, the director’s last, is swooning and operatic. It ought to be: 36 days, 15 florists and 120 wardrobe staff were required to shoot the final ball scene. They don’t call it the Italian Gone with the Windfor nothing.

Based on Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s intergenerational epic, the film begins at an ending. As Garibaldi’s army marches in to claim Sicily for a newly unified Italy, world-weary Prince Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) knows the jig is up for the Risorgimento. Still, the aristocrat is visibly shaken when Tancredi, his dashing young nephew (Alain Delon), rides out to join the Garibaldi revolution with the warning: “If we want things to stay as they are, things have to change.” With these words the prince must countenance the unthinkable – his nouveau riche neighbours will have to be invited over to dinner.

There is, at the heart of the narrative, a minor romantic squabble: the Prince must support Tancredi’s marriage to the rich, heart-stoppingly beautiful Claudia Cardinale, knowing full well that his own daughter is in love with the fellow. It hardly matters that the story begins and ends with this detail. Nobody could argue that The Leopard– a film that privileges spectacle – is overly concerned with plot.

Visconti, a left-leaning voter in life, instead prefers to let the opulence do the talking. Even the prince’s jaded resignation – “O faithful star! When will you give me an appointment less ephemeral than this!” – seems unnecessarily decadent. He and his director do, though, converge on one crucial point: the rich, unfortunately, will always be with us.

The film Martin Scorsese says he “lives by” has, since its initial 1963 release, inspired countless others, most notably Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. There’s a neat circularity about that saga’s allusions to a film that is, in itself, defined by allusions. There’s a touch of John Ford in Visconti’s sunbaked red landscapes, and the musical numbers channel Busby Berkeley.

Even in 1963, Visconti’s grammar must have seemed weirdly anachronistic. In common with its subjects and its charismatic leading man, The Leopardrepeatedly tells us, “They don’t make ’em like this any more”.