A sense of history

Burt Lancaster in The Leopard (dir. Luchino Visconti, 1963).

Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) is one of the best movies ever made about the moment at which the history of an entire nation shifts irrevocably, as felt by a single person, in this case the Prince of Salina, Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster).  “We were the leopards, the lions,” he soliloquizes near the end of the film.  “Those who replace us will be the jackals, the hyenas.  And all of us, leopards, lions, jackals, sheep, will continue to think we’re the salt of the earth.”  He’s referring to giving way of Sicily to an emergent middle class of plebeians and politicians represented by the nouveau riche Don Calogero (Paolo Stoppa) (you know his character is vulgar because he’s always talking about how much things cost).  Don Fabrizio, meanwhile, represents the last gasp of Sicily’s ancien régime—proud, noble, gracious, given to bouts of arrogant strutting but ultimately soft-hearted, and inevitably resigned to handing over his power and influence to young democrats like his energetic and dashing nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon).  Visconti underscores this in a shot that’s framed like an optical illusion: Don Fabrizio stands at his mirror shaving, but it’s Tancredi’s face that appears in place of his reflection.

Don Fabrizio's face replaced by that of Tancredi (Alain Delon).

In addition to being a sumptuously appointed and languorously paced historical epic, The Leopard is a quietly devastating character study—with an emphasis on “quietly.”  The extraordinary final act of the film, which runs some fifty minutes, unfolds at a ball that, seen through the eyes of Don Fabrizio, feels heavy with portent.  It is as if he is already mourning the death of such aristocratic rituals, which are soon to be nothing but the vestiges of a bygone era.  He wanders from room to room in a kind of stupor, gazing at the revelers as if from behind a death mask.  There is a heartbreaking quality to the film that goes beyond its historical subject: as much as The Leopard is about a very specific moment in modern Italian history, Don Fabrizio’s fate is that of all old men who must at some point relinquish control to the next generation.  It’s a fate that is effectively sealed at the moment when he dances with Don Calogero’s daughter (and Tancredi’s betrothed) Anjelica (played by the radiant Claudia Cardinale), his wistful smile clashing against his wet eyes.  His is the face of every person who realizes that they no longer have a claim on the future—that it belongs to the young, and that they have grown old.     

The ball: mise en scene and emotion.

The ball is one of the finest sequences in all of Visconti, maybe in all of Italian cinema, one in which the opulence of the mise en scene serves an emotional function instead of being merely decorative.  Nothing and everything seems to happen at that ball.  And Lancaster seems to do nothing and everything in his absolutely beautiful performance as Don Fabrizio.  He has almost no dialogue in the last fifty minutes of the film and still manages to break the heart of any viewer sensitive to the tragedy and the pathos of history’s sway. 

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