Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Leopard (Expanded Criterion DVD Review)


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 5/25/08 w/ Additional & Re-Edited Content.


One of Italy's finest directors, Luchino Visconti helped take part in Italy's postwar cinema into the venture of neo-realism with other contemporaries like Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rosselini. Visconti's contributions in the 1950s helped shaped Italian cinema as he also marked the arrival of other important directors like Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. By the 1960s, Visconti remained revered for his take on realism while also dabbling into other themes of filmmaking. In 1963, Visconti made one of his most personal films based on a novel by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa about the decline of the Sicilian empire just as Italian unification was to happen in the mid to late 1800s. The film adaptation would become one of Visconti's finest films of his career simply entitled Il Gattopardo (The Leopard).

Directed by Luchino Visconti with an adapted script written by Visconti, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, and Suso Cecchi d'Amico. The film is the story of a Sicilian prince whose life of prestige and royalty is coming to an end during the period of Risorgimento for Italian unification. Forced to deal with change around him, he becomes aware that his time is up with a new world starting to emerge. With an all-star cast starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon, Serge Reggiani, Mario Girotti, and Pierre Clementi. Il Gattopardo is an epic, fascinating, and beautiful masterpiece from Luchino Visconti.

Prince Don Fabrizio Corbera of Salina (Burt Lancaster) is living a great life of nobility and prestige as he is praying with his family and Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli). Yet, when they hear noises about a dead soldier near their garden, he gets word of a new revolution taking place for the unification of Italy. With is wife Maria Stella Corera (Rina Morelli) distraught, Corbera is convinced that the revolution will be short-lived. Often turning to Pirrone for spiritual counsel, he receives a visit from his beloved nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), who is taking part of the revolution for the middle class led by Garibaldi. Corbera suddenly becomes aware that times might change after all with his old order of nobility, royalty, and everything else is fading away.

During a battle in Palermo where Tancredi received a wound in his right eye, he returns home as he accompanies his relatives to their holiday home. Father Pirrone is suddenly becoming aware of the changing times as he joins the family for a holiday in Sicilian countryside of Donnafugata while Tancredi chats with his older cousins Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi) and Francesco Paolo (Pierre Clementi). With the family choosing to meet Don Ciccio Tumeo (Serge Reggiani) and Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa) for church service, Father Pirrone later tells Fabrizio about Concetta falling for Tancredi. Yet, later at a dinner Tancredi meets Sedara's daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) as the two become attracted to each other much to Concetta's dismay.

During a hunt wit Don Ciccio, Ciccio admits to having problems with Sedara's plans for an Italian unification convinced that it will do nothing for Fabrizio. Fabrizio is aware of Sedara's scheming yet when Tancredi has interest in Angelica. He realizes that Tancredi's marriage to Angelica might help him in power much to Ciccio's pleas to not have it happen. After negotiating with Sedara over land and such, Fabrizio realizes that it might not be an easy alliance after all. When Tancredi returns wearing a uniform for the King's army, he's accompanied by Count Cavriaghi (Mario Girotti) who hopes to court Concetta. Angelica is surprised by her engagement to Tancredi, Concetta is more dismayed as she ignores Cavriaghi. Then comes the arrival of Cavaliere Chevelley (Leslie French) who reveals what future role Fabrizio might play politically.

Realizing his role, stature, and prestige might no longer be of use after all, Fabrizio and his family arrives at the ball of Don Diego (Howard Nelson Rubien) which is also Angelica's society debut. Realizing that he no longer fits in with anything or anyone, Fabrizio is saddened by his newfound loneliness despite being asked to waltz with Angelica. With Tancredi set for his own future, Fabrizio ponders everything he's lost as the world around him is changing.

The film is essentially about the last days of a Sicilian prince's reign as he tries to deal with the changing world around him only to realize he's unable to adapt to the changes while everyone and everything around him is. While the script and story is less-plot driven and more about character and its historical surroundings. It definitely tells of how a man is trying to hold on to this world that he's been living in for all of his life and then when everything is changing. He couldn't really adapt to it and when he tries to, for his gain, he realizes that it's only for his nephew who is clueless about all of these revolutionaries and political revolts. The character of Tancredi is someone who wants to change but only to realize that he's blinded by his youth where in the beginning, he believes in one thing and by the end of the film. He's into something else as if he's following some political faction for his gain and role in society.

The script is wonderfully structured with the first act opening in a quaint, serne countryside to the chaos in Palermo before the family goes on holiday at Donnafugata. The second act is about the arrival of Angelica and Fabrizio trying to hold on to his role as Prince only to get himself into these negotiations with Don Sedara who wants a lot of things while attaining an important, political role. The third act is Fabrizio's revelation and the alienation he goes through as he tries to cope with the changes that is in front of him. Not just the new generation of people he couldn't relate to but his old order who are conforming to the times.

Luchino Visconti's direction is very fluid and mesmerizing in every scene he's shooting. From its wondrous, epic scope in the film's exterior settings in the country to the intimacy and atmosphere in the film’s interior sequences. Visconti's framing of the ball scene is wonderful in how he captures everything that goes on in the frame. The compositions later on are truly superb to capture the emotion of what is happening to the character of Fabrizio. The presentation and the way the dances are choreographed and capture show Visconti's talent in the directing front. The Don Diego ball sequence at forty-five minutes is truly mesmerizing with Visconti revealing everything that goes on. The result is truly a solid, engrossing, and certainly enchanting film that just doesn't stay true to the period but brings it to life in front of the audience.

Cinematographer Guiseppe Rotunno does amazing work with the film's look in its Technicolor, 35mm film stock with gorgeous coloring in every frame from the yellow, wheatfields in the countryside exteriors and hill tops on location in Sicily. Rotunno's camera work in the interiors with its use of day light for it sense of aura to the nighttime scenes in the interiors are filled with an array of color and richness that is exquisite in every frame shot. Rotunno's work is truly one of the film's highlights. Editor Mario Sarandrei does an excellent job in the transitional cuttings from scene to scene with the use of fade-outs and dissolves to help structure the story and most of all, maintain a meditative pacing style for the audience to get to know the characters and its surroundings.

Art director Mario Garbuglia along with set decorators Laudomia Hercolani and Giorgio Pes create exquisite interior set pieces for the homes that the character live in with authentic detailing of the furniture and silk for the look of the beds and such. The art direction in this film is truly divine for its attention to detail of the period of the mid-1800s in Italy. The costume design of Piero Tosi is just gorgeous to look at for its attention to detail and the sense of fluidity to the period. Notably in the ball scene where the dresses the women wear are jaw-droppingly beautiful for its coloring and stitching that is another highlight in its technical work. The music score of Nino Rota is truly mesmerizing from its sweeping arrangements, somber melodies, and orchestral power. The score is truly one of Rota's best work as he also arranged an old composition by Guiseppe Verdi in the waltz sequence as Rota's work is really one of the film's most memorable moments.

The casting of the film is superb with notable small performances from Howard Nelson Rubien as Don Diego, Ivo Garrani as Colonel Pallavicino, and Pierre Clementi as Fabrizio's son Francesco Paolo. Mario Girotti aka Terrence Hill is wonderfully dashing as the charming Count Cavriaghi who tries to woo Concetta with little success. Leslie French is great as Cavaliere Chevelley who tries to help out Fabrizio in his upcoming role while being clueless to his metaphorical line about his role and the world. Serge Reggiani is excellent as the loyal Don Ciccio who tries to warn Fabrizio about Sedara as he's forced to watch in horror the deal Fabrizio makes. Rina Morelli is good as Fabrizio's wife and princess who is trying to deal with the changes while being distraught towards Tancredi's rejection over her daughter Concetta. Paolo Stoppa is great as the scheming Don Sedara who hopes to gain everything from his deal despite his lack of manners and taste.

Romolo Valli is brilliant in his role as Father Pirrone, Fabrizio's spiritual guide who is one of the few trusted allies Fabrizio has while also wanting to speak matters of the heart when he wants some confessions from Fabrizio. Lucilla Morlacchi is excellent as Concetta, Fabrizio's eldest daughter who has fallen for her cousin Tancredi only to become cold by his rejection and his changing persona as she becomes bored by her own surroundings. Claudia Cardinale is superb in her role as Angelica, a beautiful woman who is touched by the kindness of Fabrizio while being aware of Concetta's feelings for Tancredi. Cardinale's sincere performance is lovely to watch, especially in her waltz with Burt Lancaster that shows how compassionate her character is to the man who is about to leave the world. Alain Delon is great as the charming Tancredi, a young man whose youthful ideals and enthusiasm is met with great love by his uncle despite his opinions. Yet, when he trades one faction for another, it becomes clear that he's merely a follower who is willing to try and maintain a position of power no matter where it comes from. It's a truly amazing performance from the French actor in his glory days in the early 1960s.

Finally, there's Burt Lancaster in what is truly one of his best performances in his legendary career. Lancaster's understated, world-weary performance is definitely one for the ages. Though in its full, uncut 185-minute Italian version, his performance is dubbed by another actor. Lancaster makes the most of it with his restraint and glorious presence as a prince who is trying to adapt to the changing time. Lancaster is most touching when he's not speaking or doing anything as he delves into all the emotions into what he's losing. It's a truly mesmerizing and powerful performance from the late yet legendary actor who even at the height of his fame is willing to take risks as an actor.

***The Following is DVD Content Relating to Il Gattopardo that was Written & Added on 11/2/10***

The 2004 3-disc Region 1 Criterion Collection DVD for Il Gattopardo presents the film in its two different versions in its two different discs.  The first disc is the definitive 185-minute cut of the film with a new high-digital transfer that is supervised by the film’s cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno.  The film is also is presented with the its original Super Technirama letterboxed/widescreen aspect ratio of 2:21:1 along with restored sound and image.  The first disc also includes a new English subtitle translation and a full-length commentary track by film scholar Peter Cowie.

Cowie’s commentary reflects on many of the film’s themes, its historical setting, and on the life of Luchino Visconti.  Cowie also discusses what scenes were cut from the original film for the U.S. release which also included scenes where Don Fabrizio and Don Ciccio at the hunting scene is shortened in the America version along with a scene where Father Pirrone is talking about faith at an inn.  Cowie reveals Visconti’s own background as he grew up in an aristocratic family where during his time in Paris, he met Coco Chanel.  This would later him get some work for Jean Renoir where Renoir taught him the world of films.  Cowie says that during the early 60s, the most important Italian directors at that time were Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittorio de Sica, and Federico Fellini.

Cowie also revealed that despite the fact that Burt Lancaster was the bigger star, Alain Delon was the only actor who got his own private dressing room which seemed insulting.  Though Lancaster remained professional throughout the film despite not speaking Italian with the rest of the cast.  Cowie also dwells on Claudia Cardinale, who was becoming one of Italy’s premier actresses at that time as she was breaking out internationally thanks to this film along with Fellini’s 8 ½.  The work of cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno is widely discussed as he became a prominent cinematographer for the Italian industry, and a regular collaborator of Visconti.

For many of the historical aspects about the film, Cowie believes that the period of Italian reunification of the 1860s would spark the groundwork for the world of the Mafia in Sicily.  Cowie also dwells on the music of Nino Rota during the ballroom scene.  Even as he revealed that when worked with Francis Ford Coppola for a 2001 DVD release for The Godfather, they found audio tapes of Rota improvising various themes.  Cowie also goes deep into the discussion of the characters in the film while revealing many of the film’s themes that involve Don Fabrizio.  Cowie’s commentary is truly delightful and very informative with its relaxed and rhythmic tone.

The second disc of the DVD is filled with special features and documentaries relating to the film.  The first is a one-hour making-of documentary called A Dying Breed:  The Making of The Leopard.  Featuring interviews with Claudia Cardinale, screenwriters Suso Cecchi D’Amico and Enrico Medioli, and cinematographer Giuseppe Rutunno, plus several others including the late American filmmaker Sydney Pollack.  The six-part documentary recalls on everything that lead up to the making of the film and its release.  The first part talks about the contrast of backgrounds between Luchino Visconti and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.  Even as some wondered if Visconti’s approach to the novel were too much since di Lampedusa died before the film ever came out.  By the time it was in the adaptation stage, it was very difficult since Visconti’s take on the book was much different from di Lampedusa.  Cut out of the story from the book were the last two chapters, the epilogues, where Visconti wanted to focus more on the Prince in his final moments for the third act of the film.  

Even the characterization of Tancredi and Angelica were different from what they were in the book as Visconti wanted them to be a more joyful, loving couple unaware of what will happen to them.  The casting of the film proved to be very difficult as they needed a big name to headline the film.  After the idea of casting a Russian actor to play Don Fabrizio didn’t work, they went to Laurence Olivier to see if he could go for the part.  The problem was that Olivier wasn’t available as producer Goffredo Lombardo made a real breakthrough in getting Burt Lancaster involved.  Though Visconti didn’t initially liked the idea of Lancaster as Don Fabrizio, he reluctantly agreed to the casting as the relationship between Lancaster and Visconti didn’t start out well.  

Yet, as the filming went on with Rutunno being the messenger for both men.  Lancaster and Visconti became the best of friends until Visconti’s death as Pollack revealed that the film proved to be a real acting breakthrough for Lancaster.  Even as Claudia Cardinale helped smooth out whatever issues Visconti and Lancaster had early on as she acted with Lancaster in English and with Alain Delon in French.  Cardinale had worked with Visconti in other film as did Delon as they were able to help things move quite seamlessly.  With the actors cast, production was set as costume designer Piero Tosi talked about the design of the costumes.  Notably the look of the soldiers where they wore early versions of blue jeans as their uniform while Rutunno and art director Mario Garbuglia talk about the look of Sicily and locations which were difficult to find.

Once the locations were found, Garbuglia and Rutunno went to great detail to recreate the interior designs of the home from the way it should be lit to the look of the walls.  For the ballroom sequence, it was a very difficult shoot due to the fact that there were several mirrors inside of the rooms.  Yet, Rutunno and Visconti were able to find ways to get the camera angles without the mirror showing the camera.  Tosi also talked about the costumes, notably the dress that Claudia Cardinale had to wear which was difficult to make.  Cardinale recalled the one thing she didn’t like about wearing the dress was the corset because it was half her size.

The fifth part of the documentary discusses about Visconti’s personality and his approach to making films.  Garbuglia and Tosi revealed that despite having a bad temper, Visconti was caring towards his collaborators and actors.  Cardinale also recalled about guiding her during her first dinner scene and got her to laugh in such a way.  The final part of the documentary recalls the American release where the people involved the film revealed how the Americans got it wrong.  Even as they had trouble with Visconti, who didn’t speak English and wasn’t very kind with the American producers at 20th Century Fox.  While Burt Lancaster was involved by dubbing his own voice with Sydney Pollack directing Lancaster during the syncing.  Pollack confesses that the American version of the film was lousy.  While he revealed that Lancaster ranked the film as his best role, the only qualm Lancaster had was that in the definitive version.  It wasn’t his voice while Pollack contended that it was the silent moments and graceful movements that gives reasons into why it’s one of Lancaster’s greatest roles of his career.

The second big feature is a 20-minute interview with producer Goffredo Lombardo.  Lombardo discusses about getting the film made because of the novel’s popularity as he went through early developments for the film until getting Luchino Visconti attached to the project.  Lombardo was responsible for getting Burt Lancaster involved as he had a hard time trying to talk to American producers, who treated the Italian producers with indifference.  Lancaster talked with Lombardo and decided to be involved after seeing a Visconti film called Rocco and His Brothers.  Though he knew Visconti wasn’t a fan of Lancaster, a meeting in Rome with Lancaster changed things.

Lombardo also discussed the production of the film as well as its release.  The reception for the film was good but in the way the film has been received many years later as a classic.  Lombardo also revealed that the film came out during a troubled period for Italian cinema because of a financial crisis.  Lombardo ends the interview talking about the idea of the DVD as he believes it’s a great thing so that it can be seen by people at their home.

The third and final big special feature is a fourteen-minute video interview with University of Pennsylvania professor Millicent Marcus about the Risorgimento period in Italy during the 19th Century.  Marcus revealed that the fall of the Roman Empire led to a separation of Italy where various sections of the country were run by different countries.  By the 1800s, there was a movement to reunify the country which finally happened in the mid-1800s.  Marcus revealed that the character of Chevelley was based on Camillo Benso, one of the leading figures of the Risorgimento.  Marcus talks about Giuseppe Garibaldi, a military figure who helped lead many battles that would lead to Italy’s reunification as Marcus reveals that he was seen as a romantic hero.

Marcus talks about the battle of Palermo, which was the big battle scene in the film as she talked about everything that was happening in that scene.  Even as it relates to the character of Tancredi where the battle would have a major effect on his views.  He starts out being a member of the revolution and then becomes part of the anti-revolution.  The Risorgimento was viewed as a failure because of power plays involving politics though there was an eventual reunification of the country though the real winner was the middle class.  Not the revolutionaries nor the aristocracy.  Marcus also talks about the idea of revolution in its various meanings while her last statement revolves around Don Fabrizio’s love of astronomy about how things would often go back.

Additional special features include a stills gallery that features rare pictures of Visconti on set, film posters, and scenes that didn’t make it to the final film or were in the original 205-minute cut of the film.  Also included in the promotional section of the special features are three trailers.  The original Italian trailer and two American trailers, the first of which featured Burt Lancaster presenting the trailer.  Finally, there’s two Italian newsreels that relates to the premieres of Il Gattopardo in Rome, where it was also an award ceremony for some of the finest in the Italian film industry including the film’s producer Goffredo Lombardo as well as Dino de Laurentiis and actress Gina Lollobrigida.

The third disc of the DVD is a remastered transfer of the 161-minute American release of the film from 20th Century Fox.  The film is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2:35:1 with a remastered sound as it features the voices of Burt Lancaster and Leslie French in their respective roles as Don Fabrizio and Chevelley.  While the print of that version of the film does look great though doesn’t carry as much depth of field as the original did.  It’s not a bad version of the film as the differences isn’t what was cut from the original film as the only thing added was a text that appears after the opening credits about the Risorgimento.  The problem with the American version are in two factors.  First is the dubbing which affects the performances as they don’t have the same sense of regality in the original.  

Though there’s some moments where Lancaster is in great form as he dubs himself, the scenes where he displays some high emotions don’t seem right.  The other issue in the film is that the pacing, in some parts of the film, is off where things move slower in some parts including the ballroom scene while other scenes, notably the sequence where Don Fabrizio and his family go to their summer home where the scene at the inn was cut along with another scene of Tancredi talking to some soldiers.  It’s where some things become confusing because the audience has no idea what is happening.  To compare it to the original version, it would be a decent, adequate film.

Accompanied with the Criterion DVD set is an essay by film historian Michael Wood about the film.  Wood talks about the similarities between Visconti and novelist Giuseppe di Lampedusa.  Even as they have a fascination with the history of Italy as they both came from different ideas of aristocracy.  Wood also goes into the psychological aspects of the characters, notably Tancredi whose motivations are more to do with power as he’s unaware of the bleak future he and Angelica would have.  Yet, Wood reveals that the film is about a man of the old order trying to find a place in a world that is rapidly changing as he would make his way towards death.

The 3-disc DVD for Il Gattopardo is definitely one of the Criterion Collection’s finest releases as audiences get a chance to see the film in its definitive version.  Even as it includes the shorter, American version so audiences can see what 20th Century Fox did wrong though it’s not an entirely bad film.  It’s truly a must-have DVD for film buffs and fans of great Italian cinema.

***End of DVD Tidbits***

When it first played in Italy in the spring of 1963 with a cut of 205-minutes, reviews were good though some complained about the length of the film. Visconti eventually trimmed twenty-minutes of the film for its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival which won the Palme D'or. Despite the success at Cannes, 20th Century Fox decided to release the film with a new cut of 161-minutes and dubbing that included Burt Lancaster's own voice for the American version. The American version received mixed reviews while the film by itself lost its stature with Lancaster often saying it's one of the best films he's done. For years, Il Gattopardo had been rarely seen in its full version as in 1980, four years after Luchino Visconti's death. The film's cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno supervised a restored version of the 185-minute cut that Visconti preferred to cinemas all over the world. The film was immediately hailed as a lost classic while its uncut version was seen by Americans in California in the groundbreaking pay-cable channel known as Z Channel.

Luchino Visconti's Il Gattopardo in its 185-minute, Italian version is a masterpiece for the ages led by a masterful and sprawling performance by the legendary Burt Lancaster. Fans of Italian cinema no doubt consider this film as essential in its full glory while it's suggested to avoid the American version since it doesn't carry the same sense of prestige and beauty of its full Italian version. With great technical work from Guiseppe Rotunno, Piero Tosi, and Nino Rota along with super supporting performances from Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale, Lucilla Morlacchi, and Romolo Valli. It's a must-see for fans of art-house cinema while traditional audiences should be patient for its pacing and epic scope. In the end, Luchino Visconti's Il Gattopardo is classic period-piece cinema at its finest.

(C) thevoid99 2010

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