Luchino Visconti's The Leopard is a great Marxist film. It tells us about a crucial point in Italian history through the story of one man, the prince of Salina - head of an aristocratic Sicilian dynasty. In 1860, when the film opens, Italy as a unified state only exists in the imagination. The country we now know is comprised of dozens of states, with no unified politics or civil society or even language. Sicily, governed by one of the most reactionary monarchies in Europe, is perhaps the most backward area, a feudal and deeply religious society where the rich are very rich and the poor very poor. The gulf between it and the modern, industrialised north - especially the state of Piedmont, which leads the drive for unification - could hardly be greater.
Salina can see that the old world that he represents is dying. This fact is brought home to him (literally) in the film's opening scene. The Salina family are praying in their mansion under the guidance of their own personal priest when a commotion breaks out. A soldier lies dead in the grounds, signifying that Garibaldi has landed in Sicily and with his 'thousand' is leading an uprising against the feudal monarchy which is based in Naples.
Giuseppe Garibaldi was the hero of Italian nationalism, a flamboyant and bold figure who inspired popular support among the poor and had a mass following. His uprising met with initial success. In the film, we see one of Salina's aristocratic neighbours saying that he is leaving on a British gunboat and advising Salina to do the same. But even the aristocracy is split, with Salina's beloved nephew Tancredi saying that he is going to fight for Garibaldi on the grounds that it is better to support the Piedmontese monarchy, which wants a more moderate unification, than to end up with a republic.
Tancredi states the reason behind such a decision: 'If we want everything to remain the same, everything must change' - in many ways the key to the film and to the prince's actions. In the end, the aristocracy of Sicily must make its peace with the new ruling class, the emerging bourgeoisie of factory owners and businessmen from the north, who have their supporters and imitators in the south. The story of 'The Leopard' is how this process takes place and how the radicalism of revolution, epitomised by Garibaldi and his supporters, can become incorporated into the new institutions of society.
The middle section of the film shows this very clearly. It begins as the Salina family makes its annual pilgrimage to its rural estate, Donnafugata, in the heat and dust of the Sicilian summer. Already, within the space of a few short months, the prince has made his peace with the Garibaldini, who allow the aristocratic entourage to travel the wartorn country freely. The arrival at Donnafugata reflects the old world, as all the villagers turn out to greet the feudal landowners, following them into the church for a service. Visconti's magnificent shots show the family sitting in their pews, their stiff Victorian clothes covered in dust from the journey, looking just like the statues which adorn the church, completely dull and lifeless.
If the family of aristocrats look as though their lifeblood is slowly being drained from them, the emerging new ruling class is in very different shape. The Salinas despise and patronise the local mayor, Don Calogero, when he arrives for dinner in an ill-fitting tailcoat. Yet he is now reputedly as rich as the prince and can buy his way into high society. The real shocker is the arrival of his daughter Angelica, who evokes emotions of envy and fear in the female members of the family while instantly charming the prince and Tancredi. Angelica's entry is one of the great scenes of the film: she is beautiful, engaging, vibrant and dynamic, in strong contrast to the dry and repressed Salina women. The prince sees Angelica as the answer to his dynasty's future and chooses her as Tancredi's future wife instead of his own daughter Concetta.
The fates of the rising and falling classes in the new Italy are sealed not just by this symbolic marriage but by the unification process itself. The referendum on unification is already flawed by corruption. The prince votes for unification partly because he sees his old world disappearing but is totally cynical about the new world, which he thinks is built on lies and corruption epitomised by Don Calogero. The new ruling class, it dawns on him, will become like the old one and nothing can ever change except for the worse. 'We were leopards and lions,' he says. 'Those who come after us will be jackals, hyenas and sheep.'
The film is composed of a series of tableaux, with scenes reminiscent of detailed paintings. The greatest of these is the ball scene, which takes up the final hour of the film and which was filmed in 14 rooms of a Palermo palace. The detail of these scenes alone, with the splendour, the magnificent silken dresses and fans, the blue uniforms of the new Italian army officers which flash through the dance floor, the voluptuous food and drink, the Verdi music, are fascinating enough. Visconti's ball inspired other film-makers, including Martin Scorsese in 'The Age of Innocence' and Francis Ford Coppola's wedding scene in 'The Godfather'.But even more compelling is the ball seen through the eyes of the ageing and tired prince. He despises his own class and reflects on the emptiness of his life. He watches the young women, the cream of Palermo society, chattering mindlessly and looking like nothing so much as a troupe of monkeys. Even the beautiful Angelica cannot take his mind away from this emptiness. He also despises the new order. One of the main guests at the ball is Colonel Palavacini, victor of the battle of Aspromonte where Garibaldi was defeated in 1862. The closeness of the military and the old aristocracy symbolises how the victorious bourgeoisie makes its peace with the aristocracy.
Death pervades the film, from the dead soldier in the opening scene to the final shots where a priest goes to administer the last rites against the sound of gunfire. Rebels face the firing squad as Italy is finally made safe for the bourgeoisie.
What has changed? Sicily is still run by the priests, the landowners and now the new state. The Mafia plays a central and corrupting role. The stench of death and decay is still there. Unification, the aim of a national ideal, a state that could advance the poorest and most backward regions of southern Italy and Sicily economically, socially and politically, was flawed from the very beginning. The unified Italian state was too weak to drive out the Austrian Empire from its northern provinces and could only do so by leaning on bigger imperial nations - first France and then Prussia. The experience of Italy, of weak democracy and then Mussolini's fascism and defeat in the Second World War, marked the subsequent 100 years. Sicilian society barely changed.
Luchino Visconti was an aristocrat who became a Communist. His film was based on Giuseppe di Lampedusa's short novel 'The Leopard', which was published in 1958 and reprinted 52 times within five months. When Visconti filmed the novel in 1963 few would have thought that it would pull in cinema audiences in London almost 50 years later. Yet the book and the film retain an enduring appeal seemingly belied by the subject matter. Lampedusa was also from an aristocratic background and based his book on an ancestor. These two aristocrats developed two amazing works of art, which give real insights into Italian society today.
The film version stars Burt Lancaster as the prince, Claudia Cardinale as Angelica and Alain Delon as Tancredi. All were big box office stars in the early 1960s so this film would have been immediately accessible to a mass audience. Lancaster and Cardinale in particular have a magnetic screen presence. But the film would have been accessible in other ways. The scenes of the uprising against the old regime in Palermo - shot like a painting in the Sicilian light and sun - would have been familiar to millions in Italy and across Europe. The Italian partisans had risen up against Italian and German fascism only 20 years before. In Naples the people had thrown the Germans out of their city. The Communists grew out of such struggles. But instead of taking power and overthrowing the old regime, the partisans all too often handed their guns over to the occupying US forces, disarming themselves politically as well as militarily.
The Leopard raises the question of why revolution failed in the 1860s and so also questions its failure more recently. If you have seen the film, read the book as well. Unusually for a film adaptation, neither is a disappointment but both add to your understanding of the characters and of this period in history. They are great works of art, in that they help us understand and sympathise with the life and personal fate of one individual while also seeing the much wider picture of social change and upheaval against which they live.
A new digital restoration of The Leopard has just opened and is showing at select cinemas nationwide, including the BFI.
In the parks, halls and public spaces around Kings Cross
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