Friday, September 30, 2011

Luchino Visconti | Il gattopardo (The Leopard)

a long sleep
by Douglas Messerli

Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, and Luchino Visconti (screenplay and adaptation, based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa), Luchino Visconti (director) Il gattopardo (The Leopard) / 1963

 Winner of the 1963 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, The Leopard is certainly one of the most visually beautiful films ever produced. Visconti's Technicolor evocation of Risorgimento Sicily is perhaps the most cohesive and convincing aspect of this almost languid epic, a vision that easily attracts one to the film again and again. The very beauty with which the director evokes the falling nobility of this lost world is, in part, the subject of the book and film narrative, revealing what is being lost far better than the Prince at the center of this work, Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster), could ever express it.

     Don Fabrizio is a sensualist, a lover of the world he inhabits while simultaneously perceiving—perhaps even reveling in—its faults. His discussion of his wife with the local priest, Father Pinone (comically realized by Romolo Valli), is a sad commentary on domestic life; although he has had seven children with Maria Stella Salina (Rina Morelli), he proclaims he has never seen her navel! Of the Sicilian people themselves, the Prince is only too aware of what he calls their "desire for death":

                 Sleep, my dear Chavelley, eternal sleep, that is what Sicilians want. And they will always resent anyone who tries to awaken them, even to bring them the most wonderful of gifts. And, between ourselves, I doubt very strongly whether this new Kingdom has very many gifts for us in its luggage. All Sicilian expression, even the most violent, is really a wish for death. Our sensuality, wish for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings, a hankering after extinction. Our laziness, our spiced and drugged sherbets, a desire for voluptuous immobility, that is....for death again.

     Visconti's film begins with a living room mass in Fabrizio's villa, interrupted by the voices of servants who have just discovered the body of a soldier upon the estate. Momentarily, news arrives in the form of a letter and newspaper account of Garibaldi and his "redshirts" attack on Messina and Palermo. The news of the attack terrifies Fabrizio's family, particularly in its suggestion that they shall have to abandon their palace, perhaps even escape Sicily or face exile. Fabrizio, however, greets the news with an amazing placidness, calming his family, and arranging his own travel the next day. His ideas about the "revolution" are summarized in his statement:

                 You know what is happening in our country? Nothing...simply an imperceptible replacement of one class for another. The middle class doesn't want to destroy us. It simply wants to take our place...and very gently.

Or as he puts it at another time:

                 Things will have to change in order that they remain the same.

Indeed it is Fabrizio's sense of inevitability tied up with his noblesse oblige that both protects his family and dooms it to destruction.

     Although the Prince accepts the growing tide—he has little choice but to do so—his views are nonetheless radically different from his young nephew Tancredi Falconeri (the dashingly beautiful Alain Delon) who stops by the palace on his way to join Garibaldi's forces, determining to help create a new Italian nation that will mean the nobility's (and, incidentally, his own) downfall. His rash decisions and immature energy are both charming and frightful, setting afire the heart of a lady in waiting, Concetta.

     In the end, however, Falconeri is a kind of comic hero, as he and his friends arrive at the end of a brutal battle against the soldiers protecting Palermo. For such a lushly filmed work it is almost shocking to see war up so close, as the rag-tag squadrons of redshirts rush forward with hardly any leadership, to shoot and kill the local forces at random. Most of the citizens support the Garibaldi forces, at one point chasing and running down a local who is said to have been a police informer. Despite his attempts to outrun the crowd, we soon see his body hanging from a nearby post. By the time of Falconeri's arrival there are only a few loyalists remaining, one of who—almost by accident—shoots the young volunteer near his eye, transforming him suddenly into a hero. We perceive that Falconeri, in his all his beauty and bluster, is a man who will take advantage of any situation throughout his life, when, a few scenes later, he shows up in a splendiferous soldier's costume, having abandoned Garibaldi's men for representing the King of Italy's forces.

     Fabrizio and his family, meanwhile, refuse to abandon their annual summer pilgrimage to the small town of Donnafugata, a voyage temporarily interrupted by Garibaldi forces, but which is allowed to continue through Falconeri's commands.

     Indeed the nephew joins them in their summer retreat, much to the delight of Concetta. Always a realist, however, Fabrizio insists that Concetta will not be suitable as a spouse for his nephew, a man whom, he proclaims, will be a world leader  visiting other countries. Such a man needs a brilliant and beautiful woman—most importantly, a woman who comes from a wealthy family, particularly since Falconeri and his mother, despite their roles as nobles, are penniless.

     Donnafugata offers up just such a woman in the guise of a local wealthy politician's daughter, Angelica Sedara (Claudia Cardinale). Unlike the pious and disapproving Concetta, Angelica is a lusty and open girl, who shocks everyone at the first dinner party with her absolutely joyous laughter at a story told by Falconeri.

     The last fourth of the film is devoted to the couple's romance as they chase about the Fabrizio palace in Donnafugata and attend a grand dinner and dance at the home of local nobility. In this scene, Visconti might be said to have staged the final grand gasp of the Sicilian nobility, with all its beauty and grandeur as well as its silliness and stupidity. At one moment, men and woman brilliantly and elegantly perform the local dances, while at the next we observe a gaggle of young women and girls bouncing and consorting about on beds. Malicious gossip is interchanged with witty conversations, grand dishes served up to sometimes unnoticing guests.

     In the novel, the later part of the work is devoted to the death of Fabrizio, but here, in the film, the Prince does not die, but simply grows short of breath and feels ill at the grand event, refusing to eat and leaving the party to walk home alone. In the stunning series of events at this ball, the director reveals all to us: it is the beginning of everything new and the end of all the old.
Los Angeles, September 30, 2011

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