Pros: good direction and images, interesting script and unique touches.
Cons: Burt Lancaster may distract some, obscure historical references.
I know next to nothing about rich people, except for the fact that they have a lot of money. And I know next to nothing about royalty except for the fact that it, too, have a lot of money, and used to be the rulers of most of the countries of the world. Nowadays, royal families are, for the most part, mere figureheads; an attachment to the past -- while the other kind of rich people run the world, without all the pomp, circumstance and elegance that royals undeniably possess.
The Leopard is a movie that details the transition from a culture of royals and noblemen, to a culture based on a less elegant and more worldly upper-class. Neither situation makes much difference to the ordinary person, but to at least one guy, played by Burt Lancaster, it is the basis for conflicting emotions as his way of life slowly slithers away.
Lancaster plays the Prince of Salina. Im not quite sure how high up in the royal family roster he is -- actually, I think hes just one of many noble people with titles in the counties that make up Italy in the late 1800s when this film is set. In any case, he presides over a turbulent time in the country, as a civil war rages between the monarchy and opposing revolutionaries. The movie doesnt give us a lot of detail into the situation; if you dont know the history (as I do not), youre not going to learn much here. Essentially, the stuff that goes on outside is a catalyst for the princes melancholy. He sees that the end of his kind is near, and slowly comes to accept it.
His relationship to his nephew (Alain Delon) tells us how the prince feels about the changing winds. The nephew, in fact, dabbles with the opposition, but there isnt a cliched battle of wills between the two -- theres a little bit of halfhearted arguing at the start, but its just the kind of thing that fathers and sons (or uncles and nephews) may have before the elder gives some money to the younger and lets him go on his merry way, as Lancaster does with Delon. During the course of the film, the princes own wife, as well as other people, think that Delons character is a traitor, or at the very least, a bad influence, but Lancaster says that this is just the times that Delon is just following the natural direction of things.
The Prince says a curious statement in this film; something to the effect of Things have to change for them to remain the same. I suppose, in a way, the prince hopes that after the revolution plays its course, things will settle back to normal and everyone will go on with their lives as before. And that is true. But at the same time, not everything will remain the same. The prince is an old guy, so his life isnt going to change all that much -- hell live out his last years in his huge palace and that will be that. But attitudes are changing all around him, not just out on the battlefield (which really plays little part in this film), but in terms of how people act and how they feel about things.
In my view, one of the interesting differences has to do with love and marriage. The princes family had been marrying cousins off to each other forever, in what would amount to arranged marriages. I assume that the reasoning for this would be to keep the family bloodline pure, even though it is rather incestuous. Delons character, on the other hand, breaks free from that tradition -- although not at first, because he is engaged in a flirtation with one of the Princes daughters, who seems to love him far more than he loves her. Later on, however, Delon finds himself drawn to the daughter of an upper-class landowner, who is not of royalty, who is more worldly, but nevertheless, influential.
The Prince is clearly mournful about this. He never makes any objections to his nephews choices, even though he naturally wants to check out the sort of family the kids marrying into. Yet its obvious that the Prince has strong emotions here. The Prince is married to a woman who is far from passionate: he even tells someone I had seven children with this woman, and yet Ive never seen her navel! Obviously, the Prince married under circumstances dictated more by family duty than love and romance. His nephew, however, is marrying out of pure emotion and desire for his intended. And during the final sequence of this film, we can read in the Princes eyes an infatuation with the nephews intended, but its an infatuation mixed with a sad realization that this is something that has passed him by.
The Leopard, a film from 1963 originally released by 20th-Century Fox, is available in this case in a Criterion edition DVD. Typically, its a heavy-duty three-DVD edition, complete with loads of special features that I have no time to look at. The film itself looks great, as most Criterion editions do. And, to me, the most amusing special feature is with the film itself.
There are two versions of the film here -- the first disk has the Italian version, while the third disk has the American version. The Italian version -- the real version of the film -- is, naturally, in Italian with English subtitles. The American version is a dubbed version that was released by 20th-Century Fox back in 63. Makes sense, right. But.... who is the star of this film? Burt Lancaster, of course. Lancaster, who is an American, a big Hollywood star. So the question that some may ask is, how do you suppose an American star manages to be in a non-English film?
Thats right! In the Italian version of the film, Burt Lancasters voice is dubbed into Italian by another person! So youve got this truly surreal experience of watching Burt Lancaster opening his mouth only to have a totally different voice coming out! (This is, apparently, also the case with Alain Delon, a French actor) Italian films of the time often starred Hollywood actors -- the most famous case being Fredrico Fellinis La Strada, which star both Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart, both dubbed into Italian by other people.
I know that you might be saying, hey, theres the American version, dubbed into English! But thats not the real version -- it was heavily cut, and, while Burts real voice is on it, everybody else is dubbed in that cheesy way that all English-dubbed movies are. And the thing is that director Luchanio Visconti wanted more money and a bigger star for his Italian movie -- and Fox promised a bunch of money if they would use a big star -- so there you go.
Whats odd is that its not all that weird seeing Burt dubbed into Italian. It is odd not to hear Burts voice, but it doesnt damage the film in any way. In fact, Burts voice in the American version doesnt work, because he sounds just like a Hollywood actor instead of the Italian nobleman he is supposed to be playing. But, in the original version, the mixture of the Italian voice and Burts strong presence create a good character. Hes tough, hes firm in his principles, yet resigned and thoughtful about things, and will not fight the changing winds.
The Leopard is a very slow movie. Its more than three hours, and my lack of knowledge about the history was a detriment to my enjoyment. The film is still quite interesting -- its a very classy picture, a big and sweeping epic. And there are some unique touches as well, including the final hour of the film, which takes place at a big and elaborate ball -- we can drink in the opulent visuals, and witness Burts quiet sadness at what he feels he is losing even as everyone else seems to be having fun. And I think this film is worth watching even just for the surreal sight of witnessing somebody else speaking on behalf of Burt. Where else would you see that?