The Leopard Movie Review
My hope is that Criterion's marvelous new three-DVD edition will change that. Unlike many special editions, there's no superfluous material here: The set includes the original, 187-minute Italian version of The Leopard, the U.S. theatrical release (because Burt Lancaster starred, 20th Century Fox had American rights to the film; not knowing what to do with it, they trimmed 16 minutes, dubbed it into English, and distorted - in the interests of "accessibility" - Giuseppe Rotunno's gorgeous widescreen cinematography), enlightening commentary by film historian Peter Cowie, and video essays that provide important historical context for the action alongside new interviews with surviving cast and crew members.
What Criterion has returned to us is a great screen epic with a compelling psychological portrait at its center, a film that is simultaneously sprawling and intimate. As the Prince, Lancaster is the embodiment of aristocracy, gorged on luxury and entitlement yet essentially noble, and he plays at a depth perfectly suited to the form; he goes deep with his performance, but no so deep as to subvert the cinematic spectacle, as a method actor might. Visconti, for his part, conducts The Leopard at an elegant pace appropriate to his hero's sense of decorum. What threatens the Prince's way of life is not just political reform but also the younger generation that gives expression to it; here, Alain Delon - one of the screen's really timeless male beauties - appears as the Prince's charming yet cunning nephew who stands to inherit his elders' power, with a ravishing (and ravishingly dressed) Claudia Cardinale as his guileless fiancée.
In terms of Italian cinematic power, it was really Visconti, and not Fellini (whose 8 1/2 came out that same year), who wore the mantle of royalty in 1963. What that power bought for him and his film is a sumptuousness, in production terms, that illuminates every frame of The Leopard, and that Visconti wields with taste and unerring intelligence. Leslie Halliwell wrote that the film is "painted like an old master," and the truth of that comment is borne out in Visconti's sublime framing and composition, in Rotunno's intuitive yet formal camera work, and in Nino Rota's elegant score.
The Leopard is not for everyone, maybe even less so today than in 1963. Its elegiac pacing requires more patience than many will be willing to give and its conflicts seethe below the surface rather than on the screen. But true lovers of cinema will find in it an awesome example of screen craftsmanship of a sort that has vanished as surely as the way of life it portrays.
Aka Il Gattopardo.