Saturday, September 8, 2007


The WHC Film Series kicked off the semester with a screening of Luchino Visconti's masterpiece, The Leopard (1963). I have to confess I've never read the novel by Lampedusa on which the film is based, so for me this epic of the Sicilian aristocracy making way for the middle-class so as to keep socialism at bay is associated with its filmed version. It's hard to imagine how the novel could be more definitive than this staging of it. In other words, the film does what to some extent cinema had always promised: telling a story with images, but also with great dramatic moments, and also with the unforgettable poetry of actual landscapes and locales. And also with a tour de force sequence, the 45 minute grand ball that almost begins to feel like lived time. And also with a memorable performance as the cornerstone of the film.

The performance upon which the whole thing hangs is delivered by Burt Lancaster, amazing as that may seem. From what Millicent Marcus, who introduced the screening, told us Italian backing wasn't sufficient for costs, so Americans were brought in and with American backing came an insistence on an American star. Visconti hoped for Brando; he was offered Anthony Quinn, Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster. What Brando would've done with the part can perhaps be imagined by what he brought to films such as The Ugly American, Burn! and The Godfather, films in which his roles were similarly thoughtful and filled with the poignancy of a charismatic figure who just can't bring it together any longer. That feeling is paramount in the role of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salinas -- Quinn (who interestingly was also considered for Don Corleone and who of course worked memorably for Fellini in La Strada) seems more fitting for the role of the middle-class upstart, Calogero, but not as the centerpiece performance. And Tracy? It's hard to imagine someone so quintessentially "yankee" pulling off the part of an Italian aristocrat, but then again it might have been so wrong it became right somehow. Well, no matter, it's Burt's baby all the way. Prof. Marcus mentioned how Lancaster patterned his performance on Visconti himself, at least, one assumes, in terms of the stately bearing, the warm reserve, maybe even the melancholic awareness of pretense and delusion as necessary to a smoothly running society.

There are at least three great moments when the Prince is able to speak at length to show his grasp of the situation: first with the priest where he speaks feelingly of how the Church is eternal but the aristocracy temporal -- he sees clearly that the Church, which the priest feels is being abandoned by the aristocrats so that the poor will have to fend for themselves, will make its peace with no matter who is in power, that its mission will outlast his own senescent class. The next is when the Prince rails at his lower class hunting buddy and later at his wife so that they will see the reason he favors his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) marrying Calogero's daughter, played with almost feral intensity by Claudia Cardinale, who happens to be the town beauty: he knows that only by aligning with the money of the bourgeoisie can his heirs continue to have things their own way -- though he finds the tactic "somewhat ignoble." Finally, my favorite scene is when the Prince is asked to become a senator, to join the government, to work to improve Sicily. His comments, full of what his visitor calls "grand truths," seek to anatomize Sicily, to suggest why someone like himself cannot become a pragmatic political animal if only because the weight of the past is too present to him. The fact that Don Fabrizio may have been a better senator than Calogero (who the Prince suggests) or Tancredi, who, his uncle realizes at the end, will serve, is only to indicate that the energy of the latter two men far outstrips the Prince, and the past. Tancredi ends up sounding like someone who will welcome Mussolini. The fatalism of the Prince's comments are striking, perhaps delusional or self-defeating, but they have a sense of poetic judgment. As when he says, "Sicilians don't believe they can be improved. Because they are gods."

Lancaster gives a bravura sense of the godlike entitlement that is passing with the Prince's generation. Visconti's images are full of a sense of ruefulness, of the kind of sadness we might feel for the lost youth of our elders, particularly when those elders pretty much had things the way they wanted them. Prof. Marcus made comparison to Gone With the Wind, in the sense of a southern aristocracy losing its privileges, but the comparison didn't feel apt to me. Rather I think more could be made of a comparison between Lancaster's Don Fabrizio and Brando's Don Corleone: in both cases a dominant man who controlled the world for a time is having to give way to forces of change, forces which he tries cannily to co-opt to the extent he's capable, even as he knows his way will still be swept away. The hopes pinned on Tancredi and on Michael are similar, and the fatalism -- which I would describe as the ability to fully understand one's fate without being able to change it -- resonates in a similar way. But nothing in Coppola / Puzo's tale of the immigrant paisano's rise to power can quite equal the Proustian sense that Visconti / Lampedusa provide in this sweeping vision of the twilight of the gods.

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