A friend claims I once declared Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard the greatest film ever made. I doubt that I did only because I am reluctant to make such pronouncements, but it is an extraordinary film at just about every level, one of the greatest films ever made, certainly, and unlikely to be equaled anytime soon.
It provides an unprecedented combination of expensive production with thematic and historical sophistication. Centered on the Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster), a middle-aged Sicilian aristocrat, the film follows his reluctant accommodation to the evolving new social order. To make that transformation convincing, considerable time is spent demonstrating how historical forces affect individuals. The Prince’s reflective intelligence, through which we experience events, enables him to accept change without drama, to recognize that whatever his personal feelings, as the world moves on, “things have to change in order to remain the same.”
All of this is staged in a densely detailed, large-scale reconstruction of mid-19th century Sicily. The sun and dust are practically characters and every moment is charged with a sensuality bordering on carnality that makes the past’s inescapable difference vividly present. Every particular is part of an all-encompassing totality, a synoptic, microcosmic conception that places events, characters, locations, fashions, rituals and behavior within an historically determined context, refracting a vibrant, shimmering moment through an objective, contemporary consciousness.
That all of this is accomplished in an expensive “all star” production verges on the miraculous. Standing ramrod straight, each move and gesture a condensed, understated expression of noblesse oblige, Lancaster (dubbed into Italian) has never been better, dominating all around him through sheer presence. The young Alain Delon, as the Prince’s lithe, slippery nephew Tancredi, is perfectly matched by his lush betrothed, Anjelica (Claudia Cardinale). Their marriage of impoverished nobility and shameless new wealth is one of the most significant demonstrations of the compromises the Prince and, by implication, the new Italy, make. Both actors are so luminously glamorous, the Prince’s willingness to overlook Anjelica’s social inferiority and let the marriage happen needs no explanation, even if his blessing is tinged with resignation.
Visconti too is working in peak form, staging one complex sequence after another with such insouciant skill we are hardly aware that we are watching a movie. It is certainly no mystery why the film, particularly the famous ball sequence, has influenced other filmmakers (most blatantly Coppola in The Godfather). Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography embraces the wide spectacle of the action while giving details a nearly tactile tangibility. Nino Rota’s luxuriant score wraps the action in operatic expressive breadth without ever overwhelming it. There isn’t a discordant note from any member of the huge cast.…
And on and on, which is the point. In its embrace of life’s contradictions and the tragic melancholy of compromise, The Leopard has a nearly inexhaustible expressive richness. If that does not qualify as great film making, I don’t know what does.