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DVD Pick: The Leopard

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One of the Greatest Sequences in Cinema History

I think the 45-minute ball sequence in Luchino Visconti's masterpiece The Leopard (1963) is among the greatest in all of cinema. It's 1862, and the corseted ladies are in elegant gowns, while the gentlemen wear white tie or military attire. The guests dance waltzes, mazurkas, and quadrilles in a candle-lit palazzo in Palermo. But the melancholy Prince (Burt Lancaster) slips away to the library, where he contemplates Greuze's Death of the Just Man.

Fascinating Protagonist and Turbulent Backdrop

The Leopard is a big-budget, widescreen, Technicolor extravaganza which I would describe as a character study set against an epic backdrop. The central character is a Sicilian prince who gets caught up in the political and social turmoil sweeping through the Italian-speaking world in the 1860s. I believe what makes the story so compelling is that while the proud Prince finds the changes distasteful, he nonetheless deals with them gracefully.

The Prince in a Time of Transition

"The middle class doesn't want to destroy us," says the Prince. "They simply want to take our places—and very gently." The most important action the Prince takes is to arrange for his nephew (Alain Delon) to marry the daughter (Claudia Cardinale) of a newly rich, rather crass man. As the film winds down, the Prince has become a relic of the past, while his nephew seems on the way to a position of leadership in the emerging new order. But I think what makes the movie unforgettable is that Visconti created a haunting elegy to a vanishing way of life.

Criterion's Three-Disc DVD Set

The Leopard had been difficult to see in North America for decades, but that changed recently when Criterion Collection released a three-disc DVD set containing two versions of the film—one in Italian, the other in English—along with some outstanding supplementary materials. The only version of the movie I recommend is the one in Italian; as far as I am concerned, the English-language version is just a historical curiosity.

Scholarly Audio Commentary

I found film scholar Peter Cowie's commentary track for the Italian-language version of the movie to be well-organized, lively, and enlightening. He is particularly strong in providing information on Visconti, as well as about the famous novel on which the film is based. Cowie claims that Visconti held the title of duke and his ancestor built the Duomo in Milan. Cowie also mentions three of Visconti's lovers, one female (couturière Coco Chanel), the other two male (photographer Horst Horst and actor Helmut Berger).

One of the Best Making-Of Documentaries for a Classic Movie

The documentary "A Dying Breed: The Making of The Leopard" is over an hour long, and it's one of the best I've seen for a classic movie. Those heard from include actress Claudia Cardinale, two screenwriters, the cinematographer, the art director, the costume designer, and the adopted son of the man who wrote the novel from which the film is adapted. Cardinale remarks that her corset was so constricting she couldn't sit down and it gave her a bloody scar running all the way around her waist. Both screenwriters mention that at one time they expected the lead would be played by Laurence Olivier, and I have to think the movie would have been very different if that casting had worked out.

Interview With the Film's Producer

There’s a 19-minute interview with producer Goffredo Lombardo, whose company Titanus Films was bankrupted by Visconti's extravagant spending on The Leopard. I was startled to learn that Lombardo seems to be considering making a sequel, but he worries, "Later, though, Italy's history becomes intertwined with the birth of the Mafia in Sicily." When asked about DVDs, the aging producer responds graciously, "Those of us from the past can only be grateful."

Featurette on Film’s Historical Background

"The History of the Risorgimento" is a 14-minute video interview with Millicent Marcus, Professor of Italian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. (The Risorgimento was the movement that transformed politically separate Italian-speaking regions into the country of Italy.) I think Professor Marcus does an excellent job of sketching the relevant historical background to the story in The Leopard, and I particularly like the way she relates her remarks to specific scenes in the movie.

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