Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.
Evidently, I’m on something of a Visconti kick at the moment, having watched two of his films in less than a week. Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) is one that I’ve put off for a while; finding it in a local library this time marks the second or third time I’ve had the film in my possession. I determined to watch it this time, and did. It’s longer than other Visconti films I’ve seen, but doesn’t specifically feel longer. It’s a good 40 minutes longer than Ossessione but feels about the same length. This is probably more because I knew where Ossessione was going from the start, and had no such prior knowledge of Il Gattopardo.
It feels very different from other Visconti films. For one thing, it’s in luxurious color instead of the stark black-and-white I’m used to from him. Second, and more significantly, we are no longer enmeshed in the plots and desires of the common people. It’s almost as if Visconti decided to walk away from neo-realism not at a saunter but at a full gallop, running so far away from the common man that he ended up mired in the Italian aristocracy of 100 years previous. There are no sparse meals or hungry children here; instead, it’s all sumptuous banquets, balls, and a heaping dose of war and political intrigue.
Our tale concerns Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster), who stands as a fading monarch and patriarch of a family of old Sicilian nobility. Set in the 1860s, the story seems to presage some aspects of the rise of Italian fascism. Specifically, the film concerns the various wars of unification of Italy and the rise of Giuseppe Garibaldi one of the unifying forces of Italy and how this concerns the nobility and the loss of power, prestige, and privilege.
The film finds the Prince at an interesting time in Sicilian history; as the film opens, Sicily has been invaded by Garibaldi and his army. The Prince’s nephew, Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), decides to fight with Garibaldi for the unification of Italy, convincing the Prince that, essentially, for everything to stay the same for the nobility, everything needed to change completely. The Prince concerns himself with the fears and concerns of the nobility. This is brought home in a conversation with his priest (Romolo Valli) with others that the Prince doesn’t concern himself with things they do, and things they don’t consider are of utmost importance to him. For instance, he cared nothing about the war or revolution, but would have found it a terrible tragedy to not take the traditional vacation to his summer palace.
One of the bigger plot points is the love triangle between Tancredi, Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), and Angelica Sedara (Claudia Cardinale). It’s of interest because Concetta is the second daughter of the Prince, and thus Tancredi’s cousin. Angelica is the daughter of a very wealthy but similarly gauche Don named Calogera Sedara (Paolo Stoppa). Since Tancredi has significant ambitions for himself, the match with Angelica is a better one for him—he needs the money. Knowing this, the Prince agrees to the match.
It would appear that this impending marriage of the old nobility to the nouveau riche works in concert with the larger story of the unification of Italy and the plebiscite taken to create and ensure that unity. Because of his power and influence, he is offered a place in the new government, but demurs. His reasoning is that the Sicilians do not really want to improve their situation. He claims that what Sicilians really want is to be left alone and to die—their frequent murders and assassinations are nothing more than a continued desire for death. Additionally, they don’t want to improve their situation because they are already convinced that they are gods, and thus improvement is impossible. There is a terrible sense of loss in this speech. The Prince knows that the world is changing and is desperate to keep his station and nobility for the sake of his family. “Eternity” in his world is a century—beyond that, he can do nothing to preserve his line or his titles.
The film ends with a ball that takes most of the last hour of the film. It’s here that the ultimate meaning of the film really comes to the fore. The Prince discovers that he is truly old, particularly when he witnesses the interactions of Tancredi and Angelica. As he realizes his own mortality, he also realizes the mortality of his position and lifestyle. He has a last fling on the dance floor before the reality of his situations comes home to him.
Il Gattopardo is a subtle film, the type that appears to have no meaning without a close and careful watch. I struggled with it in that respect, because frequently, the film feels simply like a filmed life with events that are not of particular importance happening throughout. Instead, the meanings are subtle and need to be teased out, and these meanings that I found may well not be what was intended.
Still, this is an impressive film for many reasons, not the least of which that it does not feel as long as its 3 hours plus running time. Still, despite this length, it feels unfinished. The characters simply continue without any change other than one of subtle feeling. There is no real climactic moment, nothing that sells the ultimate intent. That’s possibly Visconti’s point—there is no ultimate meaning, only a gradual change from one state to another. I can live with that.
Why to watch Il Gattopardo: Visconti moving away from his comfort zone.
Why not to watch: At longer than three hours, it still feels unfinished.