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Monday, November 11

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Airbags

5 of 5 stars
Directed by Luchino Visconti.
Starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon, Paolo Stoppa, Rina Morelli and Romolo Valli.

Italian director Luchino Visconti's 1963 film, The Leopard, which was based on the astronomer and Sicilian prince Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa novel of the same name, is set against the Garibaldi Revolution of the early 1860s. The story focuses primarily upon Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster), the patriarch of a wealthy Sicilian family, who, as it happens, keeps a few telescopes in his study. When Garibaldi's army topples the rule of King Francis II over the two Sicilies, Don Fabrizio breaks his allegiances with the previous regime, in favor of the new regime ruled by Victor Emmanuel II. Don Fabrizio's nephew, Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), leaves his uncle's household to join Garibaldi's revolution, which the Prince initially disparages, but soon goes along with, yielding to the changing of the guard in purely self-serving diplomatic fashion. Returning from the war, Tancredi joins the household on a vacation to their estate in Donnafugata. There they meet Angelica, played by the stunning Claudia Cardinale (The Pink Panther, 8), whom Tancredi quickly proposes to, much to the dismay of Don Fabrizio's daughter Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), with whom he had previously shared an unspoken but obviously shared bond.

Originally released in a 205-minute version in Italy, The Leopard was subsequently trimmed and dubbed into English for American release with Lancaster supplying his own voice. Beginning in 1980, four years after the death of Visconti, the film's director of photography, Ciueppe Rotunno, started work on an 185-minute Italian-language cut that is probably as close to the original version as will ever see the light of day. It is the American version that has been seen most widely in the U.S., though that version of the film is widely criticized as being inferior to both the original and the 185-minute cut (often erroneously referred to as the original version), which is the version I have seen.

Clearly not the most Italian of actors, Burt Lancaster was brought onto the film when 20th Century Fox offered up $3 million to help finance its production provided that an American was featured in the starring role. Unfamiliar with Italian, Lancaster recited his own lines in English, which were later dubbed into Italian. French co-star Delon was also unversed in Italian, and so spoke his own lines in his native tongue, as well. The result is actually not jarring in the slightest, however, since, like many Italian productions in the 1960s, the production did not employ sync sound, meaning all of the dialogue has been dubbed, including those of the Italian actors. In many foreign productions, even today, where dubbing into a number of languages is necessary in order to ensure as broad an audience as possible, recording sync sound for just one language is often considered an unnecessary hassle. (Chinese films, as kung fu fans already know, are routinely dubbed into Mandarin, Cantonese and other dialects just for the mainland China and Hong Kong markets.)

Under these surreal circumstances, it may seem surprising that the three lead actors managed such nuanced performances. On the other hand, perhaps this simply reveals how well they and their director understood their characters and the story. They, along with the rest of the uniformly superb cast, communicate volumes through their eyes and fleeting glances in a way that American productions, so often dictated by the needs of aliterates, rarely aspire to. This is not acting at its most bombastic by any means; these actors are not filled with "sound and fury, signifying nothing" as the Bard would put it. Quite the opposite, this is acting at its most human level, and it is marvelous.

Throughout this well-shot film, Visconti uses close-ups as they should be: sparingly. This allows the landscapes and the spectacular sets to overwhelm the characters at times, giving a larger-than-life feel to the entire film -- or, at least, larger than their lives -- and effectively communicating the broader scope beneath the surface of the story. A literal-minded approach to the film limits it to "merely" a character study of an aging man trying to get by while the world changes around him (though, at roughly 45, Burt Lancaster hardly looks ready to go). But, like Gone with the Wind, to which this film is often compared, it is not simply the lead actors' story: The Leopard is Sicily's story, as well. While Don Fabrizio is arguing with his wife (Gina Morelli) about his nephew's spurning of their demure daughter Concetta for the more striking, less reserved Angelica, the Prince defends Tancredi by saying, "He follows the times, that's all as much in his politics as in his private life." It is as if he's excusing his own disloyalty to the previous regime, to say nothing of his disloyalty to his own wife.

Though undeniably a well-crafted film, I found The Leopard to be somewhat unengaging for much of its first two hours. It was only with its final act, set mostly at a crowded ball thrown at one of the wealthiest estates in Donnafugata, that the pieces started falling together and my interest was wholly captured. During the 45-minute ball sequence, Don Fabrizio, overwhelmed by the heat of the Sicilian summer or, perhaps, overwhelmed by watching a room full of beautiful young women, needs to repair to the palace's library, where he contemplates mortality while looking at Jean-Baptiste Greuze's painting, "Death of the Just Man." Soon found by Tancredi and Angelica, the young woman briefly awakens his memories of youth and beseeches him to dance with her to the next mazurka. Refusing her on grounds that he is too old for such a lively dance, he agrees to the next waltz, where the two are watched jealously by all eyes. Lancaster manages to make his attraction to her palpable, yet subtle at the same time, further driving home Fabrizio's feeling that his youth -- and with it, any chance of happiness -- has left him. And, perhaps, Princess Maria and Concetta, who watch them dance with tight jaws, feel very much the same way.

The Leopard many not be as immediately compelling as some films, but the longer it sinks in, the more I appreciated the flawless craftsmanship behind it all, and the more strongly I related to the film and its themes. Sometimes, like much great literature, the true value of a work doesn't become clear until after some thought, and, in that way, The Leopard is easily one of the most rewarding films I've seen all year.

A 35mm print of the 185-minute version of The Leopard opens this weekend at the Music Box Theatre and runs for one week only. Despite the Music Box's unforgivably painful chairs, this beautiful film should be seen on the big screen, but it is also available on a Criterion Collection DVD, featuring both the 185-minute version, the 161-minute American release and a bonus disc with documentaries, interviews, trailers and more.

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About the Author(s)

Gordon McAlpin writes his movie reviews with a red light-up Spy Kids pen, which he thinks is the coolest thing ever, even though he didn't like the movie that much.

If you feel the need to get in touch with him directly, do so at .

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