Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard and Those Who Are Not Rich in A Country of Arrangements

Human Understanding is More Important than Social Categories

by Daniel Garrett Volume 16, Issue 7 / July 2012 14 minutes (3385 words)

The Leopard
Directed by Luchino Visconti; and produced by Goffredo Lombardo
Art director Mario Garbuglia; and cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno
Costumer Piero Tosi
Titanus/Twentieth Century Fox, 1963

In Luchino Visconti’s great film The Leopard, a film of beauty, thought, history, and romance, a film focused on an aristocratic family’s response to revolution in Sicily, with its divergent social movements toward unification and democracy, there are dance balls and feasts, but there are also much more mundane scenes that are not usually the subject of discussion; for instance, there are several carriage rides, inside of which are the aristocrats—one involving the prince of Salina on his way to meet his mistress, and another involving the prince’s family on their way to their summer retreat, and during those carriage rides, the film viewer does not know who is driving those horses for the carriages, or what the drivers may be thinking or feeling: those who fulfill the will of the wealthy and ensure their comforts are unknown.

The Prince of Salina, Don Fabrizio Corbera (Burt Lancaster), a leopard in society, a man of literature and science as well as wealth and property, lives on a great estate, a villa full of beautiful furnishings and art work surrounded by a large expanse of land that must be tended—the work must be constant, and yet we get only the slightest view of this (such as when a soldier is found dead in the garden and we see surrounding laborers, a troubling inconvenience, suggesting the nearness of political strife, the rebellion led by Garibaldi—yet not enough to trouble the prince much: Don Fabrizio quickly makes plans to see his lower class mistress in town: if anything, the aristocrat has been aroused by the danger). Some of the house servants may pray with the prince and his family, but we do not know what they are praying for: how much different are the private concerns of the servants? The prince takes the priest, Father Pirrone, on the drive to town (Palermo), and on the way Don Fabrizio mocks Jesuits—and Father Pirrone holds his own tongue in response, the inclination of the subservient man—before the prince leaves the priest at the local church, the clergyman knowing he has been a companion to a planned adultery. Near the home of the prince’s mistress are women sitting and strolling outside, one of whom calls out to the prince—the kind of call men have heard from women willing to sell their bodies for centuries. The commercial and sexual avidity are no more than a visual footnote to a larger point, the prince’s courage, power, vigorous sexuality, and ultimate appeal. Yet, a film viewer, a citizen of any country, might wonder: what is that propositioning woman’s life like? Does she have family or friends? How often is she hungry? How many customers might she have for her favors? What do her neighbors think of her?

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Don Fabrizio in prayer with servants

Don Fabrizio Corbera, who has taken his family priest as cover on his trip into town for the prince’s sexual assignation, subsequently tells the priest that theirs is a country of arrangements, and that the middle class want only to take the place of the aristocracy, rather than wanting any genuinely radical change in society. The priest thinks the prince should confess his sin of lust (the prince refuses, noting that he has made seven children with his pious wife but has yet to see her navel, calling his wife the sinner); and the priest says that if there is political change in the country the church may lose its own position; and that the church is the patrimony of the poor. If that is so, why is the church so rich and the poor still so poor? Programs are usually more useful than charity: and that may be why the creation of schools and hospitals are the best things the church has done.

The prince, who has a significant interest in science and astronomy, looks out of his office window and claims that nature has a beauty and power beyond politics. Don Fabrizio says it would take an infinite number of kings to change the world he is looking upon. It is the kind of reflection—aesthetic and spiritual—that almost any thinking person would have some sympathy for. It is the kind of reflection that was no doubt easier to make in the nineteenth century, before the effects of the industrial revolution and modern technology and population growth around the world. The prince, on the carriage ride to his family’s summer retreat in Donnafugata, asks the priest if the new government will bring more passable roads. Don Fabrizio is being somewhat mocking—he does not believe that there will be any fundamental change, philosophically or practically, though he would prefer practical progress. He is obviously comfortable where he sits, despite the implied complaint about the roads.

Don Fabrizio Corbera’s family stops at an old inn during the trip to Donnafugata, and a picnic is prepared—and the film viewer can see the bodies of those setting out the blankets and baskets but little of their faces. Will they receive any thanks, or only feudal wages? The prince has the assumptions of long-held, long-practiced power; and one thing that can mean is a casual indifference to the feelings of others. When the prince is bathing, he is interrupted first by Father Pirrone with a query from the prince’s daughter Concetta, then by a manservant asking about the choice of the prince’s clothes: the prince asks the uncomfortable priest to help Don Fabrizio dry his naked body, dismisses his own daughter’s infatuation with her handsome cousin, and keeps his manservant waiting while Don Fabrizio finishes his conversation with the priest before reprimanding his manservant for not knowing that the prince, of course, would be wearing an afternoon suit.

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The prince’s elegant, handsome nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon) has been very charming with the prince’s daughter, but the dignified, shy girl would be useless as the wife of an ambitious man, as her father knows (Don Fabrizio is more concerned for his alert nephew’s social progress than his daughter’s happiness); and Tancredi becomes attracted to the sensuously pretty daughter, Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), of the town’s ambitious and politically astute but vulgar mayor, Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), who has used his position to acquire land and gold, a dangerous man who can appear comic; and Angelica is a young woman of great and even vulgar vitality. When Tancredi and Angelica are observed kissing, and her father complains to Don Fabrizio about that, the prince angrily discounts the disapproval of a mere kiss from Don Calogero, a man who barely can stop estimating the price and exchange value of whatever he sees, and the prince proceeds to discuss the larger matter—that the young man, Tancredi, wants to marry the girl, Angelica. It is the prince whose consciousness is the standard of value. It is the prince whose family has been distinguished for generations. It is the prince who can see his society whole and still determine what will become of his family. Don Fabrizio Corbera has been an intelligent and proud man who is able to adapt—supporting his nephew Tancredi who wants to, and does, join Garibaldi’s revolutionary forces (and the prince is not particularly surprised when later Tancredi criticizes Garibaldi’s forces and joins the king’s army); and then accepting the rough bourgeoisie into his family with the engagement of Tancredi to Angelica; unlike the prince’s wife Maria Stella and daughter Concetta, whose moral and social ideas are fixed, and frequently disapproving, leaving them frustrated, starved for fulfillment. Tancredi brings home a greatly attractive, brave young noble for Concetta, who ignores the affectionate young man’s attentions.

The public engagement of an aristocrat and a bourgeois girl is but one sign of changing times. The people of Italy, which had not been unified since the fall of the Roman Empire, vote for the country’s unity, and Victor Emmanuel becomes the king of the country, with Rome its capital. Yet, the prince refuses to accept an important opportunity, when he is asked to be a senator in the new government. That would give him a chance to be involved in the policies that are set for Sicily and the entire country—but Don Fabrizio Corbera is too wed to his position as an aristocrat, a position of personal discretion and private comfort. The prince, who thinks the scorching brutality of the Sicilian landscape has affected the temperament of its people, describes the Sicilian people as being asleep, but he himself looks drowsy as he listens to his official visitor’s proposition. Don Fabrizio talks about the people’s desire for oblivion, for death, but it is he himself who begins to think about his own death. He has reached the limits of his own consciousness. Is there anything but theft or violence that could shake such complacency? Is it that complacency that makes revolution necessary?

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Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon

Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film The Leopard, one of the greatest films ever made, is a rare portrait of aristocracy. Many people assume they know what the wealthy think and how, but their assumptions are often dumb and vulgar. Here, the aesthetic appreciation, the dignity and reserve, the morality, and the philosophical vision, as well as the arrogance and strategic practicality of an aristocrat are presented as all of a piece. Watching the prince read aloud to his gathered family from a book in a large, beautiful room full of paintings is to get a picture of exquisite personal comfort. The prince of Salina says that his nephew Tancredi could not be who he is if his progenitors had not been who they were, with all their indulgences; but the same may be said of the prince. Visconti’s film, full of the inherited beauty and bounty, an expression of the sensibility that is its most subtle subject, allows us to perceive those things; and he has raised our awareness by presenting the consciousness of another, one of the principal purposes of art.

The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) was first a book published in 1958, a novel by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, an aristocrat, like Visconti, though Visconti would become a more stringent critic of his class and country; and the book was partly inspired by the author’s great grandfather as well as his own melancholy observations and reading. (The screenplay is by Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, and Visconti.) Books are made of words, as films are made of images, and they are not always immediately understood—and it was hard for Giuseppe di Lampedusa to find a publisher; in fact, the book was not published until after his death in 1957, but upon publication it was vastly popular. Its photoplay interpretation gave Visconti a grand chance to show the world some of the things he valued, understood, and some of the things that must change.

Among the most memorable scenes in The Leopard are that of the prince of Salina and his family kneeling in prayer with some of their servants; a battle between Garibaldi’s troops and that of the establishment forces, punctuated by the chasing and hanging of the town’s mayor; the long family trip to its palatial summer home, through the hot plains, the grass yellow and brown, the earth sandy; the now grown-up Angelica entering the prince’s home for dinner and gracefully encountering the prince’s family, before sitting down to dinner, hearing a sexual joke by Tancredi, and scandalizing many of the assembled with her long laugh dripping with erotic amusement; Tancredi and Angelica exploring the dusty, mostly empty rooms of a country palace, feeling but resisting their own erotic desire, feeling lucky to have found each other, though their passion, like any passion, may not last; and an elaborate formal ball, full of aristocrats and great food and music, featuring a dance between the prince and Angelica. In the film is a world in which beauty and pleasure, for better (civilization) and worse (decadence), are principles of value. (The many mirrors in the estates shown create texture, extend space, and suggest great vanity, if not significant self-reflection.) Visconti’s world is one few of us would have the knowledge or sensibility to imagine.

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Luchino Visconti is one of the artists, with filmmakers such as Bergman, Bertolucci, Bresson, Bunuel, De Sica, Fassbinder, Fellini, Godard, Kurosawa, Oshima, Rohmer, Rossellini, Sembene, and Truffaut, whose work made European and international cinema (African, Asian, and Latin American cinema) a realm of artistic, intellectual, and personal interests for many film lovers around the world. From the 1950s through the 1970s, these film writers and directors created visions that gave their audiences a new understanding of cinema and of the world. The good films that have followed in subsequent decades—among them, some I have loved: Basileus Quartet, Before Night Falls, Chinese Box, Entre Nous, Erendira, Farewell My Concubine, George Washington, Junebug, The Motorcycle Diaries, My Dinner with Andre, Orlando, My Favorite Season, The Pillow Book, Pixote, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Spring Summer Fall Winter Spring, Sugar Cane Alley, Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould, Strawberry and Chocolate, A Time for Drunken Horses, Time Regained, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, The Wind Will Carry Us, Wings of Desire, and Xica—must owe something to those earlier films even as new territory is explored. Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard has been cited as a source for approach and style for Bertolucci’s 1900, which had infusions of Marx and Freud (class conflict and perversity), Coppola’s The Godfather, a gangster picture raised to new heights, and Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, an elegant interpretation of a great American novel about love, money, and manners, to name but three films.

Upon the American release of The Leopard in the early 1960s Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called the film a portrait of melancholy, and many referred to it as a work of nostalgia, but Pauline Kael described it as a portrait of the an aristocrat from the inside. Despite some appreciation at the time of its first screenings, that did not rise to the level of adulation the film would get when its Italian version was released in 1983 or when it was restored in 2004 and viewed again in 2005. “We have the sublime satisfaction of a first-time experience with a yesteryear classic,” wrote Desson Thomson of a film of distinctive space, time, and gestures, in The Washington Post (February 11, 2005). Indeed, the film has acquired the status of a classic, but classics can be examined with a scrutiny that reveals something beyond the film world, such as what it feels like to live surrounded by beauty, or the assumptions of the rich and middle class toward the poor. “The film largely dwells inside the prince, bathing in his fascinating qualities and observations. We see him, but there are other things we need to see as well,” wrote Joanne Laurier of the World Socialist Web Site (July 27, 2010). Laurier’s commentary on The Leopard is admirable for its appreciation of the history embodied in much of the film’s aesthetics, yet I think that in her search of a worker who speaks she misnames Don Ciccio, who in gratitude to the noble charity his mother once received surprisingly voted against the unity of Italy, referring to Ciccio as “Fabrizio’s servant and hunting guide,” when he is actually a friend of another class, a church organist and hunting buddy. Although I cannot recall anyone in the film sweeping or mopping a floor, I myself am curious about the cooks and dressmakers and musicians: who were they, how much work was involved, and what did they think of it? Laurier laments that Visconti seems to expect us to share the perspective of Lampedusa or the prince—as if art were not exactly the sharing of the perspective of others. (There is something low-minded in subjecting everything to the same, dull political critique: revelations are neglected, obscured—exiled.) Visconti, the film director of Death in Venice, presented a portrait of the poor in his honest and sympathetic film Rocco and His Brothers, among other works. It is the accomplishment of The Leopard that we are allowed to see the lead character, the prince, fully; and it is also possible, if attention is paid, to see other things as well.

“The film identifies less closely with the prince’s point of view—it is about him, so to speak, but not an endorsement of his thinking—and if he is its visual center, Tancredi is the focus of its most troubling questions. It is through Tancredi’s position, through his charm and his ruthlessness, that we understand the subtle political register of the film,” wrote Michael Wood, comparing the Lampedusa book with the Visconti film, in an essay accompanying the home release (DVD) package of the film (with both the Italian and English-language American versions, its special features include interviews with Visconti collaborators who discuss his cosmopolitan sensibility, volatile temperament, high standards and trust of their talents). Visconti wondered whether the beautiful and ingratiating but opportunistic Tancredi, who approves the execution of rebellious men who might have been his comrades, would have become a fascist had he lived at a later time: what are the limits of adaptation?

No human being is perfect—not in the film world of The Leopard, nor in the world that watches that film: and thus we know that if we were given a more thorough picture of the poor or the middle class, neither would be a portrait of angels. It is not only the rich who fear change—almost everyone fears that things might get worse. In fact, what we might see when looking at the poor is not only hard work and suffering, but ignorance, illiteracy, and wanton sensuality—an indulgence in drink and sex, and who knows what else? What we might see when looking at the middle class is not only decency, discipline, and humility, but an ever-expanding ambition, distrust of others, hypocrisy, ignorance, and pretension. Of course, there are always exceptions, individuals who defy the clichés and conformities of class—individuals who pursue their own imagination, intellect, and integrity and suffer the cruelties of word, act, and consequence for it, as there is no force more common or formidable than conformity. Often when the poor or middle class are criticized as a group, there are howls of outrage and accusations of elitism and unfairness, as if the rich are the only ones who can be rigorously criticized. It can be funny to see the reflexive resistance to sympathy for the rich in serious art—or for the poor in popular entertainment. That is why what is most interesting about The Leopard is not wealth and power but character and consciousness: it is a moving film, as it allows us intimacy with one man’s personality, mind, values and virtues; and seeing him, we can see some of the things that matter to us—thinking and personal choice and comfort and family and personal associates and culture—and some of the things that influence us, many of which we are ambivalent about. Yet, the prince is different from most of us, for both his sensibility and his privileges—and we respect and like him still.

There is a carriage ride near the end of the film, with Tancredi and Angelica and her father inside, and a driver atop who is not known; and gunshots are heard, the execution of some of Garibaldi’s men, and someone inside the carriage makes comments about the necessity of law and order and the resumption of public safety. That is the way of the world—someone dies and someone else feels safe and secure.

(Essay was submitted August 2012)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 16, Issue 7 / July 2012 Essays   italian cinema