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#90 (tie): 'The Leopard': The Reveal discusses all 100 of Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time
Luchino Visconti's gorgeous epic follows a Sicilian prince as changing times push him into obsolescence.
On December 1st, 2022, Sight & Sound magazine published “The Greatest Films of All Time,” a poll that’s been updated every 10 years since Bicycle Thieves topped the list in 1952. It is the closest thing movies have to a canon, with each edition reflecting the evolving taste of critics and changes in the culture at large. It’s also a nice checklist of essential cinema. Over the course of many weeks, months, and (likely) years, we’re running through the ranked list in reverse order and digging into the films as deep as we can. We hope you will take this journey with us.
The Leopard (1963)
Dir. Luchino Visconti
Ranking: #90 (tie)
Previous rankings: #57 (2012), #107 (2002).
Premise: It’s 1860 in Sicily and, as the opening scene announces, the political turmoil engulfing Italy during a period now known as Risorgimento has breached the bucolic palatial estate of Don Fabrizio Corbera (Burt Lancaster), Prince of Selina. In his garden lies a dead soldier, a development with shocking implications for the Prince and his family as the coming of a new order threatens the stability and prosperity of their lives. The Prince attempts to weather the changes, offering support to his seemingly idealistic nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) when he throws his lot in with the rebellious forces of Giuseppe Garibaldi. As he makes his way to his summer palace in Donnafugata, the Prince’s sense of inevitable change grows. After siding with the nationalist cause in support of the new government, the Prince arranges a match between Tancredi, now a soldier in the King’s army, and Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), the beguiling daughter of Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), Donnafugata’s gauche but wealthy mayor.
Keith: For a moment while watching The Leopard, I thought maybe I was still watching Parasite, the last movie we covered in this column. It’s when Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli) tries to explain nobility while resting on his journey to Donnafugata with the Prince and his family. He says:
“The nobles, as you call them, are not easy to understand. They live in a world of their own, not created by God but by themselves, through centuries of experience, troubles and joys. They're upset or pleased about things that matter little to you and me—but are vital to them. I don't mean they're bad people. Far from it. They're... different. They take no notice of things that we hold important, and they have fears of which we're ignorant.”
Parasite’s Park family are wealthy bourgeois, not nobility, but The Leopard is similarly interested in how class differences create different ways of looking at the world. When those in the Prince’s employ find the dead soldier’s body, they speak of the corpse disparagingly. But to the Prince’s family, it’s the most telling sign that the world they’ve created may not be as permanent as they hoped.
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Writing about The Leopard upon its 40th anniversary in 2003, Roger Ebert suggested the film “was written by the only man who could have written it, directed by the only man who could have directed it, and stars the only man who could have played its title character.” The writer he’s referring to is Giuseppe Tomasi, author of the novel the film adapts. The director is Luchino Visconti. Neither was a stranger to nobility. (Visconti grew up in a palace and bears a family name that turns up in medieval history.) Both bring a certain amount of understanding for this world, but they’re not blind to its virtues. Visconti was a Marxist, but the film’s depiction of revolution is nuanced and skeptical. And it never forgets that the nobility, for all that sets them apart, are human too.
That’s where the actor Ebert is referring to comes in. In most ways, Burt Lancaster makes no sense as a Sicilian prince and his casting owed more than a little to what was needed to secure financing for the film. And yet he’s perfect, carrying himself with a weary elegance that does little to dim his innate cunning. He’s a man who knows his time is about to pass, but he’s also canny about how power works and he uses that canniness to secure his family’s footing in the world that’s coming.
There’s a lot to talk about in this feast of a film, including, of course, the feast that ends the film. Visconti brings viewers into the Prince’s world and makes it seem deeply appealing, in no small part because the Prince is so deeply appealing. He’s aware of the hypocrisy and manipulation that surrounds him and not above participating in it himself—turning a blind eye to a rigged election when he believes it will serve the greater good and his own interests—yet also somehow seems above it. It’s an audacious gesture, in many ways, making him such a charismatic and sympathetic figure, but The Leopard never plays like a film with an innately conservative view of the world or a conviction that things were better in the old days, when nobility ran the world.
I can’t put my finger on why that is. So I’m going to throw that question over to you.
Scott: I would say that there’s a deflating sense overall that this world will not change much at all, despite a revolution that has ushered the Prince into obsolescence. A true revolution—one that might bring dramatic, foundational change to Sicily—may not have allowed the Prince to attend that lavish party and stroll off into darkness in the end. It might have resulted in him getting strung up in the town square like other officials resisting Garibaldi’s insurgency. The main difference between the nobility and the power structure that’s replaced it is that the latter is more tasteless and gauche, the nouveau-riche to the Prince’s old money. In the long, masterful closing stretch at the party, we see the Prince musing about a morose painting placed in a reading room that the home’s occupant barely visits and we also witness a conversation where the cost of a fancy candelabra is openly discussed. There’s certainly a sense that he doesn’t approve of such cavalier displays of wealth. (And in the case of the painting, which depicts multiple people attending to a dying man, it seems likely that the Prince has given it more personal consideration in this moment than it has ever received before in that home.)
We’ve seen many dramas like The Leopard where an aristocrat passively and fecklessly watches as the world passes him by, but the Prince is not so oblivious. He sees the future coming from the rumblings we hear outside the window of his estate in the opening scene, despite the efforts of Father Pirrone and others in the house to drown out the alarming din with their Catholic rituals. But in a conversation he has later with Pirrone, who’s trying fruitlessly to encourage him to give a Saturday confession, he sees what’s coming quite clearly, based on what he understands from his opportunistic nephew Tancredi. The Prince claims that “nothing” is happening in the country—which, okay, is not really true—but “simply an imperceptible replacement of one class for another. The middle class doesn’t want to destroy us. It simply wants to take our place, and very gently, giving us a few thousand ducats in the process. Then everything can go on as it is.”
That’s more or less what happens. Garibaldi may have led the insurgency for a new and independent Sicily, but the system itself is not overthrown so much as refurbished to suit another class of elites like Don Calogero. The scene where Calogero is shown quite literally stuffing the ballot box in a plebiscite that ends in a 512-0 vote is astonishing to watch, not least because the Prince can see which way the wind is blowing and is not inclined to rebel. It’s subtly breathtaking much later at the big party to hear a general off-handedly mention that he’d had Garibaldi shot and it’s even more breathtaking to hear Tancredi, once an insurgent, seeming perfectly sanguine about his former comrades in arms getting shot, too, for their loyalty to Garibaldi.
And how about that Alain Delon performance as Tancredi? For one, we should say upfront that the pairing of Delon and Claudia Cardinale is right there with Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love for the Sight & Sound Top 100 most scorching couples in cinema history. But this is Delon in Purple Noon mode, at least insofar as Tancredi shapeshifts to suit his own purposes in much the way Tom Ripley does in that film. Tancredi doesn’t really believe in anything apart from his own wealth and power, and he has both a personality gregarious enough to move in any elite circle and a heartlessness sufficient to betray those he doesn’t need anymore, whether they’re his fellow insurgents or poor, plain Concetta (Lucilla Moriacchi), the woman who loves him. (It’s funny how Cardinale is so otherworldly beautiful that it’s obvious to everyone that Angelica will command the hearts of every man in the room. Visconti cuts to Concetta first.)
Yet the Prince never judges Tancredi for his callousness, because they share a similar instinct for social and political expediency. The Prince flinches at Pirrone’s urgent news that Concetta is certain Tancredi loves her and expects a proposal from him imminently. “These are just a romantic schoolgirl’s fantasies,” he snorts. (I love this scene, incidentally, as a comic beat in the film. Pirrone interrupts the Prince’s bath and the Prince makes him pay for it by unashamedly emerging from the tub in full view and making the priest towel him off.) In the Prince’s thinking, Tancredi is going to need money and Concetta’s dowry will not be enough. Angelica, in addition to being beautiful and similarly extroverted, happens to be Don Calogero’s daughter, which places Tancredi in elite company.
There’s so much more to talk about here, but we haven’t gotten to touch on Visconti’s filmmaking style, which is a big reason why The Leopard ranks so highly on this list. This is a gorgeous, painterly work that spends a lot of time soaking in the details of costuming, period decor, and the social and religious rituals of its characters. It’s also one of those movies where you can see its direct influence on a lot of future masterpieces—including a few by certain prominent Italian-Americans—to come. How did the Visconti style work for you, Keith?
Keith: Let me get to that by first answering my own question, because I think it relates to yours. The Leopard was created with the knowledge not only that the Risorgimento strayed from its original radical ambitions but with the knowledge of what was to come in Italian history. That’s a subject well outside my area of expertise, but the casualness with which Tancredi and Angelica respond to the early morning executions they hear in the background as they make their way home after the all-night party feels like a bit of historical foreshadowing. The pursuit of and holding of power has a way of making life cheap and ideals disposable.
The Leopard can make the past it’s depicting look appealing because of its sumptuousness, but also because it’s a moment before history takes a turn for the worse. There’s beauty to the way Visconti brings the Prince’s world to life but also a great deal of mournfulness. They’re very different movies, but I found myself thinking of Bilge Ebiri’s description of Tom Cruise in Maverick, in the scenes before departing on what could be his last mission, as “already a ghost.” So it is with the Prince in the banquet scenes, even before that haunting moment in which he studies the painting of the dying noble and ponders his own fate. His mood is not so morbid that he can’t make a joke about hoping his own mourners will be dressed more tastefully, but the suggestion is clear that in some ways his story is already over. Everything that happens between the banquet and his deathbed is just a matter of passing the time.
Back to style: the beauty here always feels elegiac. There’s an overwhelming sense throughout the party that this is the last time, not just for the Prince but for the culture that created it. When Tancredi and Angelica playfully chase each other through the luxurious estate that will soon be theirs, it has the feeling of tourists passing through the ruins of a vanished civilization. Even their beauty has a bittersweet tinge. These are people who look like they’ve stepped out of one of the paintings lining the walls of the Prince’s homes, but they’ve become callous to the point of monstrousness by the end. In some ways, Angelica is more symbol than character, the embodiment of what the Prince can desire but no longer possess and a stand-in for Italy itself. She’s still lovely as the film ends, but paired with someone Concetta is right to call out as a hypocrite.
And, yes, as you suggest, Coppola clearly applied some lessons from the film to The Godfather, which similarly romanticizes a moment in the past without obscuring that moment’s flaws or the violence and corruption needed to sustain its splendor. The connection runs deeper than the Nino Rota score. It’s a funny quirk of history that, in English-speaking countries at least, that inspiration only became apparent in the 1980s. The first English version, disowned by Visconti, was trimmed by 40 minutes, badly dubbed and with inferior color. (Or at least that’s the rep. I’ve never seen it.) There’s also the obvious Sicily connection, too. And, in keeping with the idea that revolutions have a way of not working out and becoming what they replaced, it’s worth remembering that Sicily’s history is one of one wave of conquest after another. (My wife and I used to go to an Italian restaurant here in Chicago owned by a Sicilian family and its decorations included a string of plaques marking the years when a new ruling force—from the Romans to the Normans and beyond—took over the place.)
We should probably dig into the film-ending party, shouldn’t we? Reviewing the re-release for the Chicago Reader in 1985, Dave Kehr wrote, “The film’s superb first two hours, which weave social and historical themes into rich personal drama, turn out to be only a prelude to the magnificent final hour—an extended ballroom sequence that leaves history behind to become one of the most moving meditations on individual mortality in the history of the cinema.” It never occurred to me to view it that way, that the first two hours are set-up for a final act that moves from a story with specific historic context into more universal themes, but it does make sense, doesn’t it? (Beyond The Godfather, that makes The Irishman, with its final stretch that puts what’s come before in stark perspective, another point of comparison.) It’s certainly an audacious move to put so much weight on a sequence that puts such emphasis on reflection over action, isn’t it?
Scott: The sumptuousness of the party certainly stands out, especially when you consider the first hour when Tancredi is among the revolutionaries fighting on the streets for a new Sicily. I never once considered Tancredi a true believer or a young idealist so much as an opportunist who recognized which way the political winds were blowing and made certain they'd blow under his sail. We hear rumblings about “the left” behind upset about Garibaldi's execution, but the way they’re slipped into the conversation is so insidious, affirming that the revolution was a means to anoint a new influx of social elites– within which Tancredi and Angelica are well-placed. Concetta becomes the quiet, defeated conscience of the group. “Poor Concetta,” Angelica laments to Tancredi. “She’s still in love with you.” I’m not so sure she’s right about that.
The film I kept thinking about during that last third is Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, which also features important parties that are formally pristine yet simmer with drama and treachery. Angelica’s debut in society is echoed, in Scorsese’s film, by the party thrown for Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who’s returned to New York as the subject of poisonous gossip. Angelica’s reception is gentler to be sure, but you get a sense in both films of how high society casts judgment and assert it will around (and through) the polite rituals of a ball. In this context, Olenska crossing a room to speak to an unaccompanied man (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a shocking development, but Angelica needn’t worry. This is a coronation for her.
You’re right that the Prince has a ghostly quality, and I think this is where Burt Lancaster’s casting really starts to make sense. He just has the physical stature of an old lion and he carries himself with an unpracticed nobility, particularly in the scene where he waltzes so elegantly with Angelica.
But the real one-to-one moment between The Leopard and The Age of Innocence comes at the end of both films. If you’ll recall, The Age of Innocence ends with an older Day-Lewis getting beckoned by his grown son to pay a visit to Olenska, the love of his life, who he’d given up out of duty to his wife, who’s now passed. But Day-Lewis balks at going up to see her: “Say I’m old-fashioned. That’s enough.” In the final minutes of The Leopard, the Prince is offered a ride home but refuses. “I’ll walk home,” he says. “I need some fresh air.”
This is where The Leopard was always headed, and the Prince sees his obsolescence coming from the start. His wandering around the party, mostly at the fringes, brings his ghostliness home, like he’s been receding toward this invisible background the entire time. Once an entire castle full of family, servants, associates and a spiritual advisor were beholden to whatever decisions he wanted to make, but he’s mostly ornamental at the party. Not only could the party go on without him, but all tomorrow’s parties will go on without him. I like what Kehr has to say about the end being a meditation on mortality, but I feel more like it’s the culmination of an entire movie that meditates on mortality. The commotion we hear outside the Prince’s window in the opening scene and the church bells that end it point to the same conclusion about his time being over.
For support, I turn to this monologue from the Prince down the stretch, as he politely declines an appointment in the new government. Note the “straddling two worlds” part, which suggests that he was never on firm ground:
“I belong to an unfortunate generation, straddling two worlds, and ill at ease in both. And what is more, I am utterly without illusions. What would the senate do with an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for those who wish to guide others? No, I cannot lift a finger in current politics. It will get bitten off.”
I’m not so sure he’s right about that last part, because he’s so smart about the politicking necessary for someone like his nephew to fit into the new ruling party. But perhaps he’s just an old, world-weary type who’s no longer willing to bite his tongue to keep his finger from getting bitten off.
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