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The Leopard

Burt Lancaster in The Leopard
Wednesday August 17th, 2011

Visconti's 1963 classic The Leopard recently underwent restoration and has been playing art houses in the US. Based on a popular novel of the same name the Italian language film won the 1963 Palme d'Or at Cannes. It's one of those Gotterdammerung type films in which an established ruling class is being swept away by forces beyond its control. In this case the Sicilian aristocracy represented by the Salina family and headed by Prince Fabrizio is giving way to the modern Italian unification movement. There is a memorable scene at a Mass where Visconti scans the family members looking like anachronisms before the rising tide of modernity.

Burt Lancaster is great as Fabrizio. He is both a strong patriarch and a sad figure confronting his own mortality and resigned to the fact that history is passing him by. It seems a little strange hearing Burt Lancaster's voice dubbed in Italian but I'd rather see this version than the dubbed version for American audiences where Lancaster's own voice is heard. This is a gorgeous looking film thanks to the cinematography of Giuseppe Rotunno with an outstanding dramatic score by Nino Rota who scored both Godfather movies in the 1970's.

At 3 hours and 7 minutes this is an epic film. Coincidentally it also symbolizes a more audacious, bygone era of cinema when a director like Visconti could take 187 minutes to tell a larger than life story. Epics like this were not that unusual in the early 60's when you had films like Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. Due to the expense of filmmaking and the shrinking patience of audiences for long stories these epics have largely disappeared from the big screen.