The Leopard is the story of the fall of the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, based upon the novel by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. In 1963 the haunting and subtle masterpiece premiered as a film, starring Burt Lancaster. Directed by Milanese aristocrat (and Communist) Luchino Visconti, it is perhaps, in the opinion of some film critics, one of the most skillfully crafted films of all time. Lancaster regarded it as his finest performance, although initially he drew back from the role of Prince Fabrizio, feeling himself to be too American. Lancaster, however, emanates a calm and collected nobility as well as animal magnetism; no one else could have played so well the Sicilian prince who was known as "the leopard."
I watched The Leopard frequently while I was writing the novel Madame Royale, about the decline of another branch of Bourbons. While no Bourbons make an appearance in the film, the passing of the old order is epitomized by the Lancaster character, Prince Fabrizio, who must make compromises in order to save his family. While Don Fabrizio and his once powerful clan incarnate the decadence, frivolity and inbreeding of the old aristocracy, they also exemplify the courtesy, noblesse-oblige and Catholic culture which were about to fade into oblivion. From the opening scene when the prince and his family are saying the rosary to the final shot of Don Fabrizio kneeling in the street as the Blessed Sacrament is carried to a dying man, the film shows how faith was woven into all aspects of life. There is a sense of the presence of God, to whom Don Fabrizio, and everyone else, must render an account. Death seems to haunt the dusty corners of the great palace, even while a new era is being born.
The plot revolves around the betrothal of Don Fabrizio's nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) to the beautiful and wealthy daughter of the mayor, Angelica. Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) is a young girl who in former times would never have been considered eligible to marry into a princely house, but in the trying days of the Italian unification her money and political connections confer eligibility upon her. Her forward and slightly vulgar manner are softened by her earthy charm; Tancredi is completely in love with her. He has forgotten his cousin, Don Fabrizio's daughter, who had hoped to marry him; the scorned maiden's silent heartbreak permeates the movie.
Don Fabrizio is smitten with Angelica as well, although he gives no indication of any attachment except when he waltzes with her at the ball. Roger Ebert describes the dance thus:
Finally the prince dances with Angelica. Watch them as they dance, each aware of the other in a way simultaneously sexual and political. Watch how they hold their heads. How they look without seeing. How they are seen, and know they are seen. And sense that, for the prince, his dance is an acknowledgment of mortality. He could have had this woman, would have known what to do with her, would have made her his wife and the mother of his children and heard her cries of passion, if not for the accident of 25 years or so that slipped in between them. But he knows that, and she knows that. And yet of course if they were the same age, he would not have married her, because he is Prince Don Fabrizio and she is the mayor's daughter. That Visconti is able to convey all of that in a ballroom scene is miraculous and emotionally devastating, and it is what his movie is about.Share