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Gone With the Vento

Oct 19, 2004 (Updated Feb 4, 2006)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

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Pros:Beautiful cinematography and soundtrack, great lesson in Italian history, superb performances, beautiful costumes

Cons:Lacking only a strong dramatic narrative for masterpiece status

The Bottom Line: A beautiful period epic with lush cinematography and a gorgeous soundtrack, strong performances and themes.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

It’s taken some forty years for America to discover what Europe has known all along. Visconti’s The Leopard (“Il Gattopardo”) is one of his most opulent and satisfying films and deserves to be respected as a great period epic. What held back this recognition for American film lovers was the decision of 20th Century Fox, which held the American rights to the film, to butcher the original 187-minute version down to 161 and redub the film into English, expecting that Lancaster’s presence in the film rather than Visconti’s vision would provide success in the American market. They were wrong, of course, as the beautifully restored Criterion Collection DVD makes abundantly evident.

Historical Background: The circumstances depicted in The Leopard are very closely tied to the fight for Italian independence and unification and the life of Giuseppe Garabaldi. Back in 1957-1960, the U.S. Postal Service issued a series of commemorative stamps in a set called the "Champions of Liberty." Among those featured, along with the likes of Simon Bolivar, Lajos Kossuth, José de San Martin, Ernst Reuter, and Ignacy Jan Paderewski, was Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882), the great Italian freedom fighter. Although Garibaldi is only indirectly present in Visconti’s film The Leopard, his influence is written all over it. What Garibaldi gave to the world by his love for freedom was beyond the pale. Garibaldi was born in Nice, France, which, at the time, was part of the Kingdom of Sardinia. That kingdom included the island of Sardinia as well as the northwest corner of what is now Italy (called Piedmont), south of the Alps and immediately east of France. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, the borders throughout Europe had to be redrawn and were pretty much up for grabs. The Kingdom of Sardinia was placed in the hands of the royal House of Savoy that had ruled prior to Napoleon and the center of government for this small kingdom was in Turin in Piedmont. Sicily and the southern half of modern Italy were placed under the rule of the Bourbons and became known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (which is where the action of The Leopard takes place). Rome and San Marino were reestablished in the Papal States under the authority of the Vatican. In the northeastern portion of Italy, several small states, including Lombardy and Venetia, were established under dukes loyal to the Austrian rulers to the north.

Almost immediately, however, the liberal intelligentsia began talk of a united and independent Italy. The center of the movement was in the Piedmont where Garibaldi was growing up. In 1834, at age twenty-seven, Garibaldi participated in a revolt against the King of Sardinia that failed. He and other participants were then exiled to South America. So devoted was Garibaldi to freedom, however, that he joined the revolt of a province of Brazil from the Brazilian government. Later, he formed the so-called Italian Legion consisting of Italian volunteers who wore red shirts, as Uruguay fought for its freedom from Argentina. These Italian fighters became known as the red shirts.

Meanwhile back in Europe, revolts broke out in 1848 all over France, Austria, the German states, and in the Italian city-states. The kings in Sardinia and Naples granted their people constitutions and republics were declared in Venetia, Lombardy, Tuscany and Rome. Garibaldi rushed his red shirts back to Italy and fought for the republic in Rome that had been established by Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini. The new republics, however, were no match for Austrian troops and all were retaken. French troops also became involved, helping the Pope reestablish Papal authority over Rome. Garibaldi was forced to flee into exile once again, this time to the United States, were he remained until 1854.

The Italian fight for freedom and independence now focused on ridding the country of Austrian control. The Kingdom of Sardinia alone remained as a symbol of independent Italy and its tricolor flag became the rallying emblem of Italian patriots throughout the peninsula. The Prime Minister of Sardinia, Count Cavour, established progressive policies and an alliance with Napoleon III of France. Fearing a new uprising, Austria declared war against the Republic of Sardinia, but with the aid of France and local revolts, the Sardinian troops freed all of Italy north of the Papal states, except Venetia, by 1860 and all joined the Kingdom of Sardinia. For another film experience relating to this period of the Italian freedom fight, check out the delightful The Horseman on the Roof.

A thousand volunteer red shirts, led by Garibaldi, then invaded Sicily, ultimately conquering the entire Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Cavour sent an army through the Papal states to meet up with Garibaldi’s force and, also, to prevent Garibaldi from attacking Rome, which would risk alienating Cavour’s French allies. By a national referendum, depicted in The Leopard, the Italians voted overwhelmingly for The Kingdom of Italy, which now included the entire peninsula except Venetia, Rome, and San Marino. Venetia was added in 1866 as payment for Italian support for Prussia in a war against Austria. Throughout the 1860’s, Garibaldi fought to free Rome from Papal authority, but it was not until 1870 that Rome was successfully added to the Kingdom of Italy, when French troops protecting the Papal State had to be withdrawn during a war between France and Prussia. Papal authority was reduced to the Vatican and a couple of papal castles and villas. Modern Italy was thereby established.

Visconti had more than a passing interest in the fading splendor of the aristocracy of Italy. He was born a count and belonged to one of the most prestigious aristocratic families of Italy. He developed a taste for opera and theater as a youth and met Jean Renoir. Renoir took him on as a costume designer and assistant director. He was also influenced by Renoir’s leftist associations, becoming a Marxist despite his aristocratic birth. Visconti returned to Italy and began making films on his own in 1940. His first feature film was Ossessione (1942), which angered the fascists of Mussolini’s government. His next film, La Terra Trema (1947), dealt with the exploitation of working class Italians in a small fishing village. With this film, Visconti linked himself with the Italian neo-realists of the era – Rossellini and De Sica. Visconti’s next made Bellissima (1951), which dealt with a mother obsessed with seeking stardom for her daughter. Next came Senso (1954), relating to Italian partisans in Austrian-controlled Venice of 1866. During this phase of his career, Visconti was gradually moving further and further away from neo-realism toward a more operatic, epic, and personal style. White Nights (1957) moved him a step further in that direction although he returned once again to a neo-realistic approach for Rocco and His Brothers (1960). Boccaccio '70 followed in 1962 and the present film, The Leopard in 1963. Visconti badly needed $3 million dollars to fund this elaborate spectacle and could only raise it by agreeing with 20th Century Fox to take on a Hollywood star, which turned out to be a tremendous blessing because Burt Lancaster delivered a marvelous performance. Highlights from the last decade of Visconti’s career included The Stranger (1967), The Damned (1969), and Death in Venice (1971). Visconti’s was highly individualistic in his style. His featured themes were class exploitation and the adaptations of the aristocracy to changing times.

The Story: Despite the sprawling epic quality of this film, very little actually happens plot-wise over the course of the three hours. This is a film much more about period detail, mood, psychological portrait, and themes than about straight narration. Prince Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster) of Sicily is a proud man of class and distinction who lives in an era in which his way of life is slowly fading. The upper middle class of merchants and lawyers, politicians and doctors is slowly wresting authority from the tradition-bound nobility. He also feels the effects of his own advancing age and senses his mortality. The film opens with the Prince leading his family at prayer.

The Prince is married but not especially happily. He treats his wife with respect but is unhappy with her sexually, complaining to his confidant, Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli), that he can’t get excited about a woman who crosses herself before sex and whose navel he has never seen in twenty plus years of marriage. The Prince has three daughters of no better than average looks, including Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), who is as stuffy as her mother. He also has a son, but he is proudest of his nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon). Tancredi is charming and gallant, reminding Prince Salina of himself when he was younger, though Tancredi is more attuned to the changing times. Tancredi goes off to join Garibaldi’s red shirts and fights bravely at Palermo, in a nicely filmed battle sequence. Later, however, when it becomes apparent that Garibaldi will be defeated by the royalists backed by the Austrians, Tancredi has the presence of mind to change sides.

The Prince recognizes the wisdom of Tancredi’s philosophy, which is that we must accept change so that things can stay the same. Like Tancredi, Fabrizio will adapt in order to save his family’s position and wealth. The Prince perceives the land reforms looming on the horizon and agrees to a marriage of opportunity between his nephew and Angelica Sedara (Claudia Cardinale). She is the daughter of Don Calogero Sedara, the mayor of the small town where Prince Salina and his family vacation, and the granddaughter of a disreputable peasant. Though Don Calogero is something of a buffoon and a mere functionary, he has also been skillfully using his position to acquire land and wealth. He is precisely the kind of man who is likely to be a beneficiary in the new order. Although linking his family to the Sedaras is personally repugnant for the Prince, it will add to the family’s security. It doesn’t hurt that Angelica, despite her dubious family, is beautiful, passionate, and intelligent – precisely the kind of woman that the Prince himself would greatly prefer to his own wife, for all of her position and breeding. Angelica and Tancredi are very much in love.

The entire final forty-five minutes is an extended ballroom scene that can be viewed as the dying gasp of the old nobility. The Prince wanders disconsolately from room to room, meditating on the changing times. He is put off, for example, by a group of rather undignified girls laughing and chattering gaily who lack the breeding to which he is accustomed. Sitting alone in a drawing room, he is sought out by Tancredi and Angelica. Angelica has come to ask the Prince for a dance with Tancredi’s blessing, though with just enough jealousy on Tancredi’s part to give dignity to his uncle’s continuing appeal as a man. The Prince declines the muzurka, but agrees to a waltz with his nephew’s wife. The pair make such a dashing couple that the entire assembled party stops to observe their waltz. Watching the couple, we realize that they each understand that they too could have been passionate lovers except for the accident of twenty-five years difference in age. Tancredi understands this as well, but also knows that his uncle will not compete with him for Angelica’s devotion, other than for this one moment of transportation into an imaginary world. The Prince almost feels that he is young and in love once again while recognizing also that his time has passed in more ways than one.

Themes: There are two main themes in this film. The first is the fading of an era and a way of life. The film The Leopard is reminiscent of the American classic Gone With the Wind both in this theme and the period in which it is set. The Italian struggle for independence and unification was essentially contemporaneous with the American Civil War. Both the old American South and the Italian kingdoms were characterized by charm and refinement but were also built on a system of exploitation of lower classes of people. Visconti fully understood both the positive and the negative sides of the issue. He had grown up in privileged refinement but had become a political Marxist. He cherished the refinements and culture of the old aristocracy while rejecting its privileged position and exploitation of the peasantry.

So, one aspect of The Leopard is this epic portrayal of a changing time, but this film has an intimate side as well. The second theme is the psychological portrait of Prince Salina, brilliantly rendered by Lancaster. The Prince is a man bred for authority and leadership, a classic leader. His personal qualities are admirable, he is handsome and charming, and morally above reproach (except for occasionally seeking real romance outside of his marriage). He sees more clearly than most that his way of life is nearly over and that he is also personally aging. He feels as magnetically attracted to Angelica as does Tancredi, but has to face the fact that he is too old for her.

Production Values: The Leopard was based on a novel by the same name written by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, also a Sicilian aristocrat. So, this is a film made by a Sicilian aristocrat adapting a novel written by a Sicilian aristocrat about a Sicilian aristocrat during the era when the aristocracy was losing its prominence. Clearly, this is a topic in which all participants were significantly invested. The title of the film comes from Prince Salina’s reference to the nobility as the lions and leopards of the old social order about to be replaced by the jackals and hyenas of the middle class. Alert viewers will also spot a leopard as part of the coat of arms seen on a wall at one of the Salina residences.

The sets and costumes are exceptional in their period authenticity and detail and Rotundo makes full use of the wide-screen potential. The cinematography is lush and gorgeous. The musical score by Nina Rota is moving and lovely and the audio quality of the DVD is quite clear.

The casting of Lancaster in the lead role turned out to be a stroke of genius – or possibly just dumb luck. Visconti had tried to get a Russian actor and then Laurence Olivier, but without success. When Lancaster was first suggested, Visconti reportedly said, “Oh, no! A cowboy!” Once the work began, however, Visconti had the wisdom to give Lancaster free reign in portraying his character. Twenty years later, Lancaster called The Leopard his best work. Lancaster seems to embody nobility. Lancaster starred in countless films, including Jim Thorpe – All American (1951), From Here to Eternity (1953), Apache (1954), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), Elmer Gantry (1960), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), and Field of Dreams (1989). Alain Delon does a quality turn in this film as well. I’ve loved him before in Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and L’Eclisse (1962). Claudia Cardinale is quite a beauty – luminous really. It certainly doesn’t hurt that she is decked out in some gorgeous period dresses. She had roles in Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), Rocco and His Brothers (1960), 8 ½ (1963), The Pink Panther (1964), Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and A Man in Love (1987).

Bottom-Line: The Criterion Special Edition DVD is a three disc set fully loaded with quality and extras. Disc one provides the Italian version of the film with English subtitles in letterbox format with an enhanced 16:9 aspect ratio. This version was based on a restoration supervised in 1980 by the original cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno. Lancaster’s voice is dubbed as is that of Frenchman Alain Delon and some other performers. There’s a commentary track available with film historian Peter Cowie. Disc three provides the American version of the film, which painfully slices off almost one-half hour of the film. Lancaster’s voice is now his own and in English, of course, but the dubbing of the Italian performers is very poor quality. The Italian version is therefore greatly preferable on all counts. Disc two has a wealth of extras. There is a 62-min documentary on the making of the film including interviews with most of the surviving participants. There’s a interview with the film’s producer Goffredo Lombardo. There’s a 14-min piece providing historical background. There are three trailers and an Italian news clip regarding the release of the film and a gallery of photos and stills.

The Leopard won the Palme d’Or at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival. This is an excellent film, comparable to Gone With the Wind as a period film and in its theme of the passing of a way of life. It falls short, however, of the dramatic intensity of the American classic. If the storyline had provided more dramatic punch, The Leopard would qualify as a masterpiece. As it is, it’s a very strong film and well worth a peek in its beautifully restored form from Criterion. The Leopard is 185 minutes in Italian with English subtitles (or the alternative 161 minute edited American version dubbed in English).

You might want to check out these other excellent films from Italy:

The Bicycle Thief
Christ Stopped at Eboli
Cinema Paradiso
The Conformist
Death in Venice
Divorce Italian Style
The Dreamers
8 ½
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
General della Rovere
The Last Emperor
Life is Beautiful
Mamma Roma
Miracle in Milan
The Night of the Shooting Stars
Nights of Cabiria
La Notte
Padre Padrone
Il Postino
Rocco and His Brothers
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
The Son’s Room
The Spider's Stratagem
Star Maker
Swept Away
The Tree of Wooden Clogs
Umberto D.

Recommend this product? Yes

Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older

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