Il Gattopardo (1963)

“We were the leopards, the lions, those who take our place will be jackals and sheep, and the whole lot of us – leopards, lions, jackals and sheep – will continue to think ourselves the salt of the earth.”

‘Il Gattopardo’ (translated as ‘The Leopard’), directed by Luchino Visconti in 1963, is an adaptation of a novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa that tells the story of the conquering of Sicily in 1860 by Giuseppe Garibaldi. It’s told from the point of view of the Prince of Salina, played by Burt Lancaster, who finds his power and way of life threatened by the war but ultimately, and melancholically, comes to accept it.  It’s a lush and extravagant costume drama shot through with religious allusions, complex and florid discussions about power and the slow demise of traditions and customs. In an odd way, although maybe not given the location of the film, it made me think of ‘The Godfather’, but instead of narrating the rise to power of a man whose main source of influence in the respect of the people around him, in this film the respect shown towards the Prince is the only thing that gives him stature. Indeed, this is a story in which the central figure finds himself manipulated and used by the local government as a figurehead, in many ways the anti-Godfather. Lancaster plays this mercurial and, at times, stubborn character perfectly and it is his performance that gives the film a real weight. Another thing that sets this film apart is the scale of the set pieces, the battles, a wedding ball, banquets, and how these are juxtaposed with small, intimate conversations between the characters. For me, the most interesting moment of the film came when two lovers explored the castle and discovered unused rooms. They move through these, a form of decaying labyrinth, past ancient portraits, peeling walls, abandoned furniture. This scene seems to me to act as a metaphor for the state of Italy at the time the film was set, and the time it was made.

Would I recommend it? It’s long and feels old-fashioned, but the central performance makes it worth watching. A double-bill with ‘The Godfather’ perhaps?

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