Saturday, December 4, 2010

Review: The Leopard

     I'm always a little taken aback when a movie asks me to accept the vision of the über rich as I would my own. For some reason I see no problem in considering the suffering of the poor as representative of some kind of universal truth, but wealth has been associated with decadence so often in movies, that it's a little surprising when the wealthy actually have something to say. We may sympathize or envy the rich, but we almost always feel that they deserve the fate of Marie Antoinette.
    In The Leopard, wealth and nobility are at once the subjects of the story, and elements that become so natural that they cease to matter at all. The narrative focuses on Prince Don Fabricio of Salina (played by an extraordinary Burt Lancaster) and his extended family as they weather the Italian Risorgimento (Italian unification in the 1860s), which turns out not to be such a big deal; the Prince cedes some power to some bumbling local officials under the rule of a constitutional monarchy and keeps most of his wealth. But in a way it is a big deal. One era is coming to an end, and a time when nobility won't mean anything at all is being ushered in.
     Visconti is pretty ambiguous about what this implies. He was an immensely rich aristocrat who was also a Marxist, so he is far above populism even if he knows the importance of equality. In The Leopard, there's nostalgia concerning the grace and elegance of the nobles, and the Prince, instead of being haughty, is kind and fair. We should therefore take him at his word when he delivers his speech on the changing social hierarchy: "We were the leopards, the lions, those who will take our place will be jackals and sheep, and the whole lot of us--leopards, lions, jackals and sheep--will continue to think ourselves the salt of the earth."
      But the political and social change that are integral to the setting are only a small part of the change that is so important in The Leopard. It's a film about people and countries growing old, about things refusing to stay the way we want them too. The Prince's nefew, the young and beautiful Tancredi (Alain Delon) is deeply in love with, and eventually engaged to, the young and beautiful Angelica (Claudia Cardinal, Italy's Megan Fox). In one of the film's most moving scenes Angelica invites the Prince to dance a waltz with her and he is overcome with emotion as he once again assumes the role of a young man filled with desire and vitality. Affection for his own wife is long gone; for him, love is "fire and flames for a year, ashes for thirty."
     The waltz is part of a forty-five minute party/ballroom sequence that is one of the greatest sequences in the history of cinema. People gossip, talk politics, dance, wear exquisite costumes and eat and drink in copious quantities. Everyone enjoys themselves, except for those who don't. The young Concetta, who was rejected by Tancredi but is still in love with him, is tired of all the excitement and opulence, and has no intention of dancing. The Prince is even more tired; he doesn't eat because he isn't hungry, finds little use in discussion with others, and he eventually slinks off into the library to contemplate his own mortality. Near the end of the ball, he peers into a room only to find that every available space in it is filled with used chamber pots. After all the people have come and gone, the only thing to remember them by will be the waste they left in their wake.
      These final scenes are so impressive because there's a very intimate sadness amidst all the visual splendor. And by the end, I felt a little like the Prince--exhausted and a little wary of the constant change in my own world. Of course, the 3 hour 25 minute run-time could have helped with the exhausted bit, but The Leopard is too superbly crafted to ever be boring. In this, I'd compare it to The Godfather and Fanny and Alexander, which is fitful since both are similarly ambitious in their scope and since The Leopard's influence can be seen very clearly in the two of them (so much so that I can't even get into it here). And as further proof of it's effect on filmmakers, there's Scorsese's claim, "it's a film I live by." Scorsese, who helped fund the restoration that I had the privilege of seeing, has good reason to say this. Everything that comes after The Leopard is a jackal or a sheep in comparison.*


*Just needed a snappy line to end this. But there's some truth in it nonetheless; very little else is as distinguished or refined.

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