Count Luchino Visconti (1906–1976), like his fellow product of Milan, Pietro Germi (Divorce, Italian Style), had a particular fascination with Sicily, and several of his most important films (La Terra Trema, Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard) were shot there. Visconti is generally considered the “father” of the Neorealist movement. It has been suggested that Visconti’s work assisting Jean Renoir in the 1930s helped push him in that direction, but like Renoir in later decades, Visconti’s canvas gradually became more expansive and theatrical. Renoir and Visconti were great buddies (according to Renoir’s autobiography) who were separated by the outbreak of World War II, although, at first glance, the two would seem to be very different. Visconti was a nobleman turned committed leftist, his politics complicated by his homosexuality; Renoir was a Popular Front leftist turned essentially non-political humanist—eventually basking in Beverly Hills—and something of a ladies’ man. (Renoir’s great novel, The Notebooks of Captain Georges, includes a very sympathetic gay character.) As Renoir, the recent film by Gilles Bourdos, suggests, however, young Jean was something of a prince, living on the estate of his father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, surrounded by the attractive models in his father’s paintings, including one he married and made into a movie star, Catherine Hessling (La Fille de l‘eau, Nana, The Little Match Girl). The hero of Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), which was scrupulously adapted from—and retained the episodic structure of—the only novel by Prince Giuseppe di Lampedusa, seemed like perfect material for the director in his own conflicts between his noble heritage and progressive instincts.
Lavishly photographed by Giuseppe Rotunno (who began his career as cameraman on Visconti’s earlier Risorgimento epic, Senso, in 1954), the camera seems to float through the sunlit landscape and Prince Fabrizio’s palatial estates. The climactic 47-minute ballroom sequence provides some of the most beautiful moments in all of cinema, with meaningful dance sequences accompanied by a third Giuseppe, Verdi. These cinematic moments and movements are perhaps rivaled only by Max Ophuls’s The Earrings of Madame De…. Lampedusa (1896–1957), whose novel was initially rejected as unpublishable, was not unaware of the movies, as evidenced by his reference to Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, and one senses that he would have approved of the languid pacing and ornamental detail of Visconti’s film if he had survived to see it.
The portrait of Sicily that Lampedusa and Visconti present is of a country enslaved since the beginnings of the Roman Empire, now dealing with absorption into the Italian mainland, which was, however haltingly, trying to cope with an uncertain modernity. Fabrizio tells the household priest, “We’re not blind, my dear Father, we’re just human. We live in a changing reality to which we try to adapt ourselves like seaweed bending under the pressure of water.” The instrument of change, a fourth Giuseppe—General Garibaldi—was more sympathetically treated in Alessandro Blasetti’s 1860 (shown in this series three years ago), but Visconti does stage one of the most spectacular battle scenes in all of cinema. Ultimately, though, the struggle matters little to Fabrizio. He opines, “We were the Leopards, the Lions; those who’ll take our place will be jackals, hyenas, and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals, and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.” How comfortable the progressive Visconti was with this, in conflict with his own aristocratic roots, provides the film with an intriguing tension.
Visconti had a habit of using English-speaking actors in his films: Farley Granger in Senso, Dirk Bogarde in The Damned and Death in Venice, Trevor Howard in Ludwig. Since all Italian films were dubbed, these raised interesting questions. In the case of Burt Lancaster in The Leopard, a badly abridged English version was released in this country. Andrew Sarris in his contemporary review believed that Lancaster’s performance lost much of its authority. I essentially agree with this, although I think some of Lancaster’s best moments are actually silent. The choice of the actor was somewhat forced on Visconti, and there was considerable bad blood between the star and his director. At one point, Lancaster confronted Visconti on how he was being treated, and in the words of witness Suso Cecchi D’Amico (as quoted in the excellent biography of the actor by Kate Buford), the two emerged with “real, deep affection, esteem, respect, solidarity.” They were reunited for Conversation Piece, two years before Visconti’s death.
This past week marked the birthdays of both director and actor. Lancaster would have been 100 last Saturday.