The Leopard

The latest offering of excellent, free, online-magazine Five Dials, was entirely devoted to (one article only) Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s "The Leopard". Reading the article made me curious about the book, but it was not avaliable at the local library. The film from 1962 was, however, being a classic apparently, with Burt Lancaster in the lead and directed by Luchino Visconti. I have generally no idea about Italian literature or film and I got a friend on board to watch it with me last Saturday.

I know almost as little about Burt Lancaster as I know about Italian literature, but I remember him vividly from "The Crimson Pirate", a film I saw several times in my childhood (we had just got our first video recorder and recorded it off the television - just being able to watch a film as many times as we wanted and when we wanted to was novelty enough!) and that had me thinking of Lancaster as an acrobat, come from the circus. Which he was. In "The Leopard", however, he makes no somersaults.

A modern version of il Tricolore. From Rome, last November.
The story is about a Sicilian prince, Don Fabrizio Salina, living through the early 1860´s, when Italy was changing and becoming, eventually, one nation. There is much talk about Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel, but I will not go into that, there are whole essays on the complications of the Kingdom of Italy on Wikipedia in case anyone is interested. The Prince is a creature of the old world, ruled by "leopards and lions" as opposed to the new breed of rulers, capitalists and industrialists, "the jackals and the hyenas" - to put it in the words of the Prince himself. His passivity and old age (he ages from 45 to 47 in the film, but the book apparently follows him as far as his death in 1910) is set against the vitality and opportunism of his nephew Tancredi, heir of an aristocrat who has lost his fortunes and who has to make his own way in the world.

First, Tancredi joins the Garibaldi redshirts, then he joins the regular army and suddenly the garibaldinis are despicable, and at the very end of the film, some of these are publicly executed while Tancredi celebrates his engagement to a rich and beautiful, but common and trashy, burger´s daughter. In one of the key speeches of the film, he declares to his uncle that they must join the new rulers to remain in power. "For everything to stay the same, everything must change", he says (or something like that). The slick, charming Tancredi is perfectly played by Alain Delon, and the beautiful, vulgar Angelica, his bride, is played by Claudia Cardinale.

Set against this opportunistic match is the vain pursuit by Tancredi´s friend, count Cavriaghi, a Milanese gentleman seeking the affections of the Prince´s daughter Concetta, who has no interest in him. She is a woman of the old order, her father´s world, and she falls out of love with Tancredi when she realizes what little morals he has. Tancredi tries to explain to the disappointed Cavriaghi that they are world´s apart - "in Milan, it takes a month to plan a meal of spagetti" (or something like that). It´s the way of the south, the catholic, rural, old world against the north, protestant, industrial, new world. Cavriaghi is played by Mario Girotti, more famous perhaps as Terence Hill of the Bud Spencer-partnership.

In another part of the film, a representative of the new government visits the Prince and offers him a seat in the Senate, which he declines. The official expresses his profound regret, saying that if all wise men decline, how are we going to change things? The Prince answers that the Sicilians are not prone to change. They think themselves already perfect.

Much is made of manners and dresscodes and in this way Lampedusa reminds me of Austen, who also chisels characters against such settings as visits and balls. The dresses are to die for, if you´re into that kind of thing. There are also humorous bits, like in the way the Prince talks with his priest, father Pirrone, and his hunting partner, don Ciccio.

I really enjoyed this film. I though Lancaster was fabulous as the Prince of Salina. The cast was international, Lancaster said his lines in English and the version I saw was all in Italian. One doesn´t really notice much, even though I´m not used to watching dubbed movies. I think seeing it for a second time, with the commentary track on, helped me appreciate it more.

Sadly, Lampedusa didn´t live to see his book in print or the film being made, he died in 1957, a year after he finished the book. His son visited the set and is introduced, by his real name, in the ball scene, as a kind of homage to the man.

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