There is a certain folly in adapting great works of art for film: as Hitchcock and Truffaut explained in their legendary conversations, a great work of art contains some facet that links it definitively to the medium in which it was created. Occasionally, a filmmaker adapts a seminal work and makes something worthy of its source, but the likelihood of just making a fool of yourself and the masterpiece you love should, ideally, encourage people to work on original ideas for their own media.
Yet the stacks of awful films based on great books can be forgiven when a truly great adaptation rises from the muck, and Luchino Visconti's film of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel, The Leopard surely ranks as one of the finest, most epically tragic works in all of cinema. Lampedusa, a descendant of the Sicilian aristocracy and a minor prince in his own right, wrote the novel about his great-grandfather in the aftermath of World War II, in which his family's palace was bombed by the Allies, destroying the last real symbol of his family line and what it stood for.
Thus, the novel and the film, set during the last stages of the Risorgimento nationalist movement that aligned the various city-states of the Italian peninsula into modern-day Italy, apply more to the 20th century than the 19th, but that does not diminish the power of Visconti's epic but personal overview of massive social change and what it means for everyone caught in the riptide. Visconti, himself an aristocrat, was also a Marxist, yet he finds an unlikely common ground with the more conservative author: Tomasi regarded change with bitter distrust, while Visconti could remove himself enough from social fervor to understand that social reform obliterates aspects of life worth keeping along with the ones that aren't. Few would argue that aristocracies do not impose harsh inequalities on societies and dictate rule through birth and not qualification, but the mercantile greed that replaced it does not offer all the answers, either.
The film opens, as did the book, with the patriarch of the Salina family, Prince Don Fabrizio, praying with the rest of his family during Mass. Suddenly, a messenger arrives with news of Garibaldi's Redshirts landing in Marsala; the movement has finally reached Sicily. Upon hearing the news, the prince betrays no emotions, and he declares that he is riding to Palermo to check upon matters, though everyone knows he is off to visit his mistress, seeking to take his mind off this troubling news.
Fabrizio is played by Burt Lancaster in what may be the greatest and oddest example of a casting forced upon a director actually working to his benefit. Visconti knew he needed a name to secure the financing for his epic, and he originally planned to hire renowned Russian actor Nikolay Cherkasov. But Cherkasov, who would die three years later, was in no fit health to travel, much less perform. The director then suggested Laurence Oliver, but the British thespian had other commitments. The producers chose Lancaster for Visconti, infuriating the director until the two met and began to work on the project. At some point during shooting, Visconti awoke to Lancaster's potential, and what follows is his greatest performance, overdubbed Italian voice and all.
Lancaster, like the prince, was a man who fit into the royalty of the old system but also saw change on the horizon. The actor established the most successful American independent film company of the 1950s, even as he still walked around a legend. Lancaster authentically portrays the royal carriage of the prince, stiffened and aloof not simply out of the insular pleasures of the upper class but as a means of shielding oneself from the overwhelming hate of the have-nots. People like Don Fabrizio know full well how they're perceived, and the actions he takes throughout the film show him attempting to preserve his way of life while ensuring that his family will survive.
The situation looks grim: even his friend and priest, Father Pirrone, sheds no tears for the death of the aristocracy, finding them to be spoiled fools who do not feel the need to repent their sins because they enjoy life too much to worry about the next stage. Pirrone has affection for the prince as a man, but he also notes to some commoner friends down at the tavern how the Salina family cares more for trivial matters such as their vacation than they do for the revolution that brings their end. Indeed, Fabrizio takes his family to their impossibly large estate in Donnafugata to enjoy their last moments of authority and uncontested power.
Much of The Leopard plays out with an ironic touch carried over from the novel. Don Fabrizio cannot bear his wife crossing herself before making love and praying afterward, so incensed that he hasn't even seen her navel despite making seven children with her that he declares that she, the faithful one, is the true sinner between them. His children are largely unspectacular: spoiled, indolent and of average attractiveness. Seeking someone to carry on the family legacy proudly, Don Fabrizio turns to his nephew, Tancredi (French actor Alain Delon), a handsome, ambitious young man that the prince can see will live a great life. Yet Tancredi has also sided with the nationalists, and even fights in the battle against the Bourbons in Palermo, a sequence invented by Visconti, who figured that movie audiences needed such a moment where readers didn't. However, the audience infers from Fabrizio's attitude toward the Redshirts that Tancredi's anti-royalist sentiment is part of the reason the prince relies on the boy to carry on the Salina name: the family cannot survive without compromising its traditions to adapt to the changing times, and the massive numbers of Redshirts seen in the battle versus the paltry royal soldiers makes inescapably clear that the shift is inevitable. Tancredi speaks frankly and passionately for what he believes in, even if he contradicts himself later when his views shift. He accepts what comes his way and adapts instantly, making him the only member of the young, feckless generation who can save an entire bloodline.
Infusing the dying opulence of the aristocracy into the mise-en-scène and the colors of Giuseppe Rotunno's cinematography, Visconti uses faded golden hues to capture the empty rituals of the rich as they seek to act as usual in the hopes that everything else will return to normal if they refuse to acknowledge anything. Upon reaching Donnafugata, the Salinas are met by the entire town, and as the prince graciously accepts the warm welcome we sense that he's wistfully taking stock of it, the last such welcome he shall receive. The town has a new mayor, Don Calogero, a commoner whose allegiance to Garibaldi made him an incredibly wealthy landowner. Fabrizio invites the new official to dinner and even welcomes the villagers to come to the estate later in the night, an intended display of generosity that instead exposes the Catch-22 of aristocratic life: those who remain aloof and do nothing to alleviate suffering incur the wrath of the lower classes, yet those who try to show some kindness simply look ridiculous and lose face before their peers and the commoners.
Calogero represents the new middle class, which, as Fabrizio notes, does not wish to destroy the aristocracy but supplant it. He arrives to dinner wearing evening dress as if preparing to go to the opera, something that shocks Don Fabrizio "more than the landing at Marsala." Such an oafish baboon that the scene feels like a historical epic version of The Dinner Game, Calogero inspires titters from the established gentry, until his daughter, Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), enters the room. Angelica is so beautiful that she freezes everyone in their tracks, and a look of pure desire crosses the faces of both Tancredi, who'd previously flirted with his cousin Concetta, and Prince Don Fabrizio himself. Instantly, Lancaster turns from a Stoic, refined face to one that betrays feelings he clearly hasn't felt since adolescence and the first bursts of adulthood, and the way that he makes that shift believable and utterly heartbreaking proves how right Lancaster was for the role.
Fabrizio knows that his daughter loves Tancredi, but the lad has an ambition that his fading wealth cannot support, so he asks Calogero to marry Angelica to his nephew. Doing so would ensure that his favored relative would receive the money to complement his status -- the aristocrats never seem to have actual money, only the impression of it (which proves how worthless it really is) -- and also that the young man might be happy, as he clearly wants Angelica's hand in marriage anyway. The mayor proves how unaccustomed to money he is when he reacts to the honor of linking his line to royalty by offering such an obscene dowry that his adviser openly clucks in the background.
The rest of the family, of course, cannot abide this. Fabrizio's wife sobs uncontrollably that her daughter, whose jealousy of Angelica is overwhelming, will not marry her beloved. Don Ciccio, the church organist, spits his fury over the vote for unification, his loyalty to the Spanish queen who gave him her patronage earning lifelong fealty to the old way. He criticizes the prince for allowing a marriage to those who would make him obsolete. The organist even decries the way in which the two were arranged: "To try to seducer her would be an act of of conquest," he says, "but this is unconditional surrender!" Ironically, the man unloads this invective to the prince's face for voting in favor of unification to give the public the unanimous vote they want, yet it is precisely the impact of the nationalist movement that has weakened the noble class that he could be so forward with the prince.
When Father Pirrone walks in on Don Fabrizio bathing early in the film, the prince waves off the embarrassment. "You're used to seeing naked souls," he jokes. "Naked bodies are far more innocent." Visconti exposes the truth of that in the final hour, most of which takes place in a lavish ball. A setpiece that rivals the climactic restaurant sequence of Tati's Playtime for complexity mastery of mise-en-scène and thematic totality, the 45-minute ball is a movie unto itself, and the focal point of the film's seemingly unrelated thoughts on political reform, sensuality, mortality and regret.
Visconti, trusting the instincts of both Rotunno, who saves his most gorgeous palettes for this sequence, and Lancaster, follows Fabrizio as he moves through the endless rooms of the estate, stalking like the titular leopard that adorns his family's crest. His movement, tracking Angelica through the party, suggest a rejuvenation that comes with stirred loins but also a sadness, a final effort to peek from around corners to see that vision that contains the joys of his past and the implacability of his future, in which he shall be sexually and politically obsolete. Finally, he asks her for a dance, which Visconti stages as a burst of sensuality and longing that bottlenecks in frustration and Fabrizio's self-awareness of his age. Here is a prince, a man accustomed to having his way, looking upon the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, someone he would have taken for himself were he not 25 years her senior. And yet, the lingering pride in his eyes suggests that he would not have even then, unwilling to tie his royal name to a peasant. Angelica senses this and says nothing, but the moment of understanding shared between them, filled with longing, heartbreak and an exchange of power, is devastating. When Fabrizio politely excuses himself from burdening his nephew and the boy's fiancée at their dinner table, we sense that he cannot bear to be in the woman's presence any longer. And when the prince heads to another room and his eyes mist, one wonders if Lancaster himself wasn't the one choking back tears, affected by what he'd just had to do. A film with this grandeur normally plays as melodrama, which is neither inherently bad nor good, but Visconti crafts a film of greater emotional complexity by turning soapy sexual tension into an elegy, a touching look at the last burst of feeling these people have before they fossilize.
Fabrizio wants none of the change sweeping his home, and he even refuses the opportunity to become a chosen senator because he understands that he's trapped between the old way of life and the new structure and thus will be shouted down by both sides. Tancredi, on the other hand, knows how to follow along to public opinion; Concetta, still bitter over her rejection, tells her cousin that he never used to speak so forwardly before he met Angelica. He denies this, saying, "I've always spoken like this," which is true, only evident to Concetta now because he opines on subjects that she finds distasteful instead ones with which she agrees. In the end, Tancredi is so ready for this new world that the sound of a firing squad does not dilute the happiness of his carriage ride with his new wife and his uncle. But Fabrio cannot bear it any more, and he gets out to walk, reduced to kneeling in the street begging God for an existence that isn't so ephemeral. Lancaster does not shout, does not raise his arms to the heavens, but this open acknowledgment of fear marks the final gut-wrenching blow of The Leopard, in which the prince has become a pauper, but not in the financial sense. No, he's impoverished on a spiritual level, and even the most committed liberal cannot help but mourn the aristocrat as he watches his way of life disintegrate before him.