With all its talk of Garibaldi and Bourbons, The Leopard will either have you looking for a guide to 19th century Italian politics or reaching for a packet of biscuits. A scholarly but somewhat fragmented commentary helps a little if it’s the former, combining a wealth of background on the film’s technical aspects with a good grounding on the historical context.
Unfortunately, it often sounds like it’s being read out by the tutor on a foreign language audio CD and, alongside a serviceable 10-minute interview with Claudia Cardinale in which she discusses her work with director Luchino Visconti, means this Blu-ray is sorely lacking when compared to the upcoming three-disc Criterion edition.
Still, the 1963 Palme D’Or winner brings together a fine international cast led by Burt Lancaster as Prince Fabrizio of Salina, a Sicilian nobleman resistant to the monumental political upheaval in an Italy on the cusp of unification during the 1860s. He’s keen to marry off his nephew (Alain Delon) to the daughter of a rich local mayor (Cardinale, never more radiant), hoping this can secure his family’s future.
For all its historical and political significance, The Leopard is ultimately the tale of one man who thinks change will not affect him or his way of life, finally coming to terms with the fact that it must.
Lancaster was at the peak of his Hollywood power coming off his Oscar win for Elmer Gantry, but one mark in the debit column here is the Italian dubbing over the dialogue he recorded in English. This can be somewhat distracting initially and the film is often edited in such a way that he’s speaking off camera or from a distance to make it less obvious. This annoying disturbance is compensated by a stunning final ball sequence, where he conveys everything the prince has learned and lost physically and facially.
Almost to the exclusion of its other facets, The Leopard is an exquisite visual feast, rich and lush, with every decoration or costume captured in intricately wrought detail on Blu-ray. Unfortunately, while it is unendingly beautiful, Visconti also seems to never have met a panning or establishing shot that he didn’t want to stretch way beyond its natural cutting point. Just because something is over three hours in length doesn’t automatically make it important, but if The Leopard is not a perfect film, at the very least it’s certainly a very good one.
With its grandeur, one majestic performance and layers of symbolism, this offers plenty to discover on subsequent viewings.