The Leopard (Blu-ray)(The Criterion Collection, 6.29.2010)
Luchino Visconti's The Leopard has had a troubled history in the North American market. Twentieth Century Fox acquired the 1963 film, but had no faith that audiences could sit through a slow-moving, 185-minute, subtitled historical drama, even with Burt Lancaster as its star. With that concern in mind, they trimmed the film to 161 minutes and dubbed it into English. This dubbed version once showed up regularly on television, offering increasingly dark, fuzzy and finally unwatchable images. Although Visconti's version has previously been available on DVD, only this Criterion Blu-ray allows the film to be seen as it should.
Based on a 1958 novel by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard is set in ninteenth-century Sicily during the Risorgimento: the long, violent struggle to unify the disparate Italian states into a single nation. In Palermo, Don Fabrizio (Lancaster), the Prince of Salina, finds his aristocratic way of life threatened by the arrival of the revolutionary forces led by Guiseppe Garibaldi. The irony of the situation is that Don Fabrizio recognizes that his time has passed and sympathizes with the rebels. As the commentators in the extras point out, The Leopard is a highly personal film for Visconti, who was himself a count with communist sympathies. The film is centered around Don Fabrizio's reactions to the changes raging around him and his relations to his flamboyant nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon) and the lovely newcomer to their circle, Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), with whom Tancredi falls in love.
Visconti was also prominent as a director of operas and an operatic sensibility is evident in all of his films. These works are stately, elegant and colorful -- with many long, long scenes. Nino Rota's uncharacteristically melodramatic, sentimental score accentuates the operatic quality of The Leopard. As we all know, only unwashed cretins complain about how slow classic films are, but The Leopard is painfully slow (the climactic ball scene goes on for 46 minutes!).
To truly understand what is going on, it might be necessary to do some historical research. Also, it doesn't help that Lancaster -- an actor who has one of the most distinctive voices in film history -- is dubbed into Italian by someone who doesn't sound remotely like him. For those unable to overcome this problem, Criterion includes the English-language version on the second of this edition's two discs.
Visconti orginally wanted Laurence Olivier for the role, but the British star was unavailable for health reasons. Fox and producer Goffredo Lombardo hired Lancaster behind Visconti's back, leading the director to demand, "What am I going to do with an American gangster?" When production began, he was aloof in relation to his star, but Lancaster's performance is ultimately one of the main virtues of The Leopard. Given the voice issues, it's lucky that many of his scenes are silent, as when Don Fabrizio retreats from the ball to contemplate his fate in the library. Lancaster is one of the most physical actors ever, yet in this scene and elsewhere in The Leopard he withdraws his body into a shell and provides a convincing example of a character deep in thought.
Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno supervised the restoration of The Leopard in its original 2.21:1 ratio and it looks crisp. Rotunno works with a subdued pallette, making the occasional bursts of color all the more striking, as with a pink dress worn by Angelica. When a soldier's body is found in Don Fabrizio's garden, his blood, the roses and the handkerchief placed over the corpse's face are all a matching shade of red, underscoring the dangers of the approaching war.
The extras include an essay by Michael Wood with considerable background about the film, a 19-minute interview with Lombardo, a 13-minute history of the Risorgimento by scholar Millicent Marcus, a commentary by film historian Peter Cowie and the hour-long A Dying Breed: The Making of The Leopard. Cowie is rather dull, choosing to analyze the film, rather than provide compelling background information. Cowie excels, however, at explaining the similarities between Visconti and his protagonist.
Made for the 2004 Criterion DVD edition of The Leopard, A Dying Breed consists of interviews with Rotunno, Cardinale, production designer Mario Garbuglia, costume designer Piero Tosi, screenwriters Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi d'Amico -- who died at 96 on July 31 -- and Sydney Pollack, who directed Lancaster's English dubbing. Cardinale admires the cultured Visconti's ability to talk about anything and describes his initial disdain for Lancaster before the actor and director became close friends. Cecchi d'Amico explains how the ball's prominence grew considerably from its role in the novel and how Fox re-edited the film. Cardinale describes how she spoke English with Lancaster, French with Delon and Italian with everyone else -- and how her corsets left a bloody scar. All commentators agree that Visconti could be dictatorial.
Cecchi d'Amico explains that Fox tried to sell The Leopard as the Italian Gone with the Wind and there are superficial similarities between the two epics. However, modern audiences may note a greater resemblance to The Godfather, another operatic, elegiac look at a fading way of life. Not only did Francis Ford Coppola use a score by Rota, but he cast Corrado Gaipa (Lancaster's Italian voice) as Don Tommasino, who looks after Michael Corleone during his Scilian exile. -- Michael Adams