Classic Corner: The Leopard

“I belong to an unfortunate generation. Straddling two worlds, and ill at ease in both.” This is the clear-eyed assessment of Don Fabrizio Salina, a Sicilian Prince and protagonist of Luchino Visconti’s famed historical epic The Leopard. In the midst of the Risorgimento (the movement for Italian unification in the 1860s), Fabrizio (played with both vigorous hauteur and aching ruefulness by Burt Lancaster) sees that these political transformations signal the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of a grasping, morally flexible bourgeois. Fatalistic and faced with his own mortality, he correctly predicts that unification will do little to change the lives of ordinary Sicilians, and that the island’s millenia-long history of colonization, corruption and poverty will prove resistant to any shallow attempts at democratization.

Don Fabrizio and Visconti are similar characters. (Visconti himself was technically a count, the son of a noble family from Milan; Lancaster said he got into character by observing Visconti himself.) As in his earlier film Senso, Visconti uses the Risorgimento to stage a historical allegory for his own political disillusionments. After joining the Communist Party during the war (and barely escaping a death sentence due to his Resistance activities), he was disappointed when the post-War government ushered in a centrist coalition that kept the left out of power and stymied social reforms. 

Political allegory gives The Leopard weight and resonance, but it has a vitality that comes from a nuanced understanding and palpable love of the decadent beauty fighting for its survival. Visconti’s background meant that he could appreciate the restrained manners and social value of aristocratic rituals, while acknowledging that they must die all the same. Visconti’s historical works are able to straddle these worlds–of allegory and dramatic immersion–through an aesthetic sense that combines the highly theatrical with the deeply detailed and lived-in.  

Visconti could be exacting, tyrannical even, about every detail of design. But despite those impulses, he had the good sense to surround himself with great artists, who he often worked with again and again: cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, scenic designer Mario Garbuglia, and costume designer Piero Tosi.

Rotunno (who would go on to work with Fellini and on Carnal Knowledge and All That Jazz) immediately grasped the power of Visconti’s love of the impression of three-dimensionality and deep focus. This posed a challenge, since The Leopard was shot in Cinemascope. Roptunno got around this with wide angle lenses, and shooting in panfocus, a challenge that he gladly took on; he saw himself as a painter looking to create depth. There’s no greater testament to Rotunno’s success in this regard than in the opening scenes, when the Salina family’s prayers are interrupted by the news that a dead Bourbon soldier has been found in their garden. The family, posed in a tableau, are interrupted, and Rotunno slowly follows them further into their frescoed palazzo as they reconfigure themselves in pairs and triples in the room, holding themselves upright even at the moment of crisis. Throughout this composed disruption, Rotunno draws attention to the blowing wind indicated by lace curtains blowing in the wind, visualizing the Sicilian wind and heat imposing on the aristocratic, hermetically sealed world.

Tosi, a consummate man of cinema, took his trade quite seriously; he was devoted to his craft but equally aware that costume should conform to the character and the story, rather than stand out unduly. As a maker of costumes for historical films, Tosi was especially meticulous. When making the “red shirts” worn by the followers of the revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, Tosi soaked them in tea, then buried them and dug them up again to achieve the right color for the red shirts in a battle scene. Other effects were achieved more subtly: Don Fabrizio’s daughters, always dressed in a demure dove gray, their cloaks and dresses adorned with the meander, or “Greek key” pattern, which was in fashion at the time. There is ironic foreshadowing here, as the pattern signifies eternity, when these daughters will surely not end up leading the lives to which they have been accustomed.

Tosi, always immersed in the historical context, wrote that the costume design involves particular attention to the “female body” and a “certain historical context.” This certainly pertains to the costumes Tosi made for Claudia Cardinale, who plays Angelica, the earthy bourgeoise who Fabrizio’s nephew will marry both out of lust and to fill the family coffers. Cardniale’s voluptuous figure exaggerates the fashions of the time, and the white lace confection he makes for her in the final ballroom scene marks her entry into high society, while still signaling that she’s an interloper.  

Of the three, Garbuglia had the hardest task, basically taking on construction work in order to restore the facades of crumbling palazzos to make facades for establishing shots. He added tiled terraces, curving staircases, and décor for crumbling interiors. He constructed the facade of the Salinas’ summer home that covered a whole row of existing houses–a fun-house mirror version of Don Fabrizio’s observation that the aristocracy will intermarry with the bourgeoisie just to ensure its survival for another hundred years.

The talents of the three can best be seen in the last hour of the film, which takes place as a ball where young and old, the aristocratic and the bourgeois, come together in highly symbolic dances and snippets of conversation. Tosi, of course, has outdone himself with the sheer array of multicolored, beaded, lacy gowns. Golden wall hangings, portraits of sneering ancestors, arrays of mirrors and candles project an aura of oppressive opulence. Rotunno’s camera plays fully, capturing the depth of a ballroom in full swing, then zooming and following Fabrizio as he wanders amidst strangers and contemplates his own mortality. It shows us how a group of artists working in tandem create The Leopard’s both doubled and auratically mystical quality–what makes it “a film of distinctive space, time, and gestures.”

“The Leopard” is streaming on Hoopla and available for digital rental or purchase.

Julia Sirmons writes about film, media and performance. Her work has appeared in Bright Wall/Dark Room, CrimeReads, The Theatre Times and Another Gaze. She has a PhD in Theatre and Performance from Columbia University.

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