Saturday, 1 August 2015

THE LEOPARD - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Magnificent, Heart-Achingly Romantic Visconti Epic @ TIFF Bell Lightbox Summer in Italy series & a gorgeous Criterion Collection BluRay

The Leopard (1963)
Dir. Luchino Visconti
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Christ Almighty, I love Luchino Visconti! Then again, what's not to love? The guy knocked us on our butts with one of the earliest forays into Italian Neo-realism, 1943's still-provocative Ossessione, his debut feature being the very first film adaptation of James. M. Cain's immortal crime melodrama "The Postman Always Rings Twice". With each subsequent picture, he progressively ladled on the most gorgeous, sumptuous compositions in service to increasingly melodramatic narratives.

Still, he almost never forgot his roots in the tradition that became far more synonymous with Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica. In spite of his penchant for the melodrama driving his epic of politics, war and romance, The Leopard (and so many subsequent films), neo-realism continued to be pervasive within Visconti's unflagging attention to detail, especially during both the battle scenes and lavish rituals of Sicily's ruling class which take breathtaking command of this stunningly great picture.

Based upon the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Visconti and his raft of screenwriters including himself, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa and Suso Cecchi d'Amico, craft the compelling tale of Don Fabrizio Corbera (Burt Lancaster), the powerful, respected and beloved Prince of Salina. Whilst many of his family members, neighbours and the estate's personal Catholic priest all fear the recent uprisings to unify Sicily and Italy, led by the savvy military genius General Garibaldi and his 1000 "redshirts", Don Fabrizio harbours a romantic kinship with the rebels. He even finances them and offers his unconditional blessings to his favourite nephew, the dashing, handsome Tancredi (Alain Delon) to join the "redshirts'" cause.

Don Fabrizio is more than happy to share his beliefs with those who will listen: the uprisings will ultimately mean everything and nothing. Yes, they will further unify Italy, but in fact, the "changes" are necessary to maintain the "status quo". Essentially, nothing will really change (at least in the immediate future) for Italy's aristocracy.

His relationship with Tancredi is especially close. The lad takes the place of the son he's always wanted. His love for Tancredi is such that he pooh-poohs the notion of his own daughter marrying the gorgeous swashbuckler since he's well aware of the fact that such a young man (his estate squandered by Fabrizio's brother) will require a wife of considerable wealth. Fabrizio has dowries to offer, of course, but with seven daughters, none of them will come close to adding up collectively to what he feels Tancredi will need for both himself and to solidify the power of the Corbrera Dynasty. Fabrizio is as politically and financially astute as he is a romantic.

In addition to the astonishing battle sequence involving the fall of Palermo to the "redshirts", Visconti continues to soar as a filmmaker with two key set pieces in the 3-hour-long film. One involves the family's journey to their country palace in Donnafugata and the other, a grand ball involving the presentation, or "coming-out" (if you will) of Tancredi's wife-to-be, the drop-dead gorgeous and mega-wealthy Angelica (Claudia Cardinale).

Though the pace of the film is as stately as the lives led by these Italian aristocrats, there is never a dull moment in the proceedings thanks to Visconti's eye for beauty and his knack for detail. (The astounding cinematography of the great Giuseppe Rotunno and the grand orchestral Nino Rota musical score are no slouches, either.)

From a luscious picnic on the way to Donnafugata, through to the traditional processions and celebrations in the town (if anyone wonders where both Scorsese and Coppola received considerable inspiration and cinematic tutelage, they need look no further) and finally the fascinatingly complex negotiations twixt Fabrizio and the somewhat vulgar landowner seeking "legitimacy" by marrying his daughter off to Tancredi, Visconti dazzles our hearts, minds and eyes with drama and images that are simply unforgettable.

One of the magnificent directorial touches is the subtle, almost heart-aching manner in which Visconti captures Fabrizio's passionate, though unrequited love for the stunning Angelica. Handled with looks and glances, along with Burt Lancaster's soulful performance, we feel the ultimate consummation of his desires within the vicarious thrills he enjoys through that of his dashing nephew. As Fabrizio's love flourishes, Tancredi's virtually explodes, and then during one of cinema's greatest ballroom dance sequences, Visconti allows us to bear witness to one of the most wildly romantic scenes in all of cinema history.

Angelica catches one of Fabrizio's glances and in a stunning moment of cinematic glory, we're witness to a sense of her looking into the handsome, distinguished visage of what she herself will grow old with once she marries Tancredi. She asks Fabrizio for a dance. He agrees, but only if the orchestra plays a waltz.

And then, as if the Heavens have parted to grant them their wish, a waltz strikes up and we feel the gooseflesh and tears rise within us as this grand, old Prince takes the stunning princess-to-be for a spin on the glorious dance floor under the majestic chandeliers of the palace and the admiring eyes of all who surround them.

As the film winds down, as the grand ball comes to a fitting end, Visconti allows us to follow the departing Don Fabrizio Corbera, the Prince of Salina as he slowly walks into the night air, disappearing into the darkness as a new generation takes command of the light.

As The Leopard so beautifully proves, things never really change. The cycles of life and love continue, long after we're gone - not forever, but swallowed by our eternal memories and those which supplant our own and create memories anew.


The Leopard is part of TIFF's 2015 Summer in Italy series and also available on a gorgeous Criterion Collection Blu-Ray which includes a new high-definition digital transfer, supervised by director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno and presented in the original Super Technirama aspect ratio of 2.21:1, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition, the 161-minute American release, with English-language dialogue, including Burt Lancaster’s own voice, an audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie, A Dying Breed: The Making of The Leopard, a terrific hour-long documentary featuring interviews with Claudia Cardinale, screenwriter Suso Ceccho D’Amico, Rotunno, filmmaker Sydney Pollack, and many others, video interviews with producer Goffredo Lombardo and professor Millicent Marcus on the history behind The Leopard, original theatrical trailers and newsreels, a stills gallery of rare behind-the-scenes production photos and a lovely booklet featuring a new essay by film historian Michael Wood.