Saturday, February 16, 2008
Garibaldi's men are sweeping across Italy, the new order might overthrow the old, change, which is dangerous to some and deceitful to others, is violently sweeping across Sicily too, where the Prince of Salina, in his palace, surveys the impending new order or shape of things to come. He believes that change would mean that things don't change and essentially stay the same. These are the first glimpses we catch of the Prince of Salina as Luchino Visconti's The Leopard, a movie based on the novel of Il Gattopardo, written by Guiseppe Lampedusa, a Sicilian aristocrat. It appeared posthumously in 1958 and was followed by Luchino Visconti's film of the novel in 1963.
The Prince of Salina, played by a majestic Burt Lancaster is shown right from the beginning as a figure who, even inspite of his aristocratic hauteur, has an air of tragic sensibility about him. Living with his wife, children and his adorable nephew Tancredi, the prince knows that while violent change is inevitable, it will be ineffective. As Tancredi joins Garibaldi's men, the prince blesses him and yet seems assured of a return of the old status quo. The prince and his family leave for a holiday to one of their palatial houses in the countryside, a place swarming with revolutionaries, they stay for a night in a cheapish room, and yet the prince clings to his linen and ways with aristocratic fervour. The rebellion ends, Tancredi returns home, falls in love with the breathtaking Angelica, played by Claudia Cardinale and the prince arranges their engagement, in a way selling his nephew's family name to Angelica's father, a nouveau riche, a merchant parvenu. The rebels are now the king's army, the old aristocracy is invited to the senate, things have not changed.
The Leopard is a majesterial movie, an epic in true form, a sweeping panorama, a train of colours, a thoughtful paean to an age, to an idea. We begin with little sympathies for an aristocrat and we end feeling sorry for the prince of Salina, a kind of solidarity that has nothing to do with class or creed but the timbre of humanity. I might have expected Visconti to bring to his narration a Marxist sensitivity, as in Rocco and his brothers but nowhere did I find anything ideological in this movie, for while the prince does harangue, he does not preach, instead he does listen. The spectacle that is this movie, the drama, the lushness of the sets, the intimate details, the careful attention of everything one sees is the sign of Visconti's genius. It is not a period drama but a drama of a period captured with grace, with love and affection. Each image follows the other naturally, merging with the previous one without violence.
The hour long ball scene is the piece de resistance of this movie. When the ball begins, we are unaware of the drama unfolding. The genius of this sequence is time craftily mastered for an hour does actually seem a lot longer, for we too are a part of this lavish ball, as we follow hundreds of guests, as they partake of delights, young maidens and smartly dressed ex-revolutionaries dancing waltzes and mazurkas, and the new and old order exchange looks. This scene is an extravagance, a cinematic rarity and the colour, I repeat again, the costumes, the characterisation of each part of the ball in detail and effect is the highlight of this movie, something that cannot be even vaguely matched by Visconti's other films.
I was reminded of Edward Said's brilliant essay on both this novel and movie called A lingering old order. Even though Said' essay is on a different theme, that of lateness in style, there are acute observations, especially on the novel( sadly I haven't read it) and also on the movie. Said writes that "social disintegration, the failure of revolution and a sterile and unchanging south are evident on every page of the novel. yet, Lampedusa negates the Gramscian diagnosis and prescription. The prince stands for a pessimism of intelligence and a pessimism of the will. Nothing he does in the course of his work has any effect on the paralysis and decay that envelop him, his family, his class. The leopard is a southern answer to the southern question". Said goes on to say about the movie........
"The crowd scenes in the film, especially the Palermo street battles and the gigantic ball scene, testify to the prodigious powers of cinematic super-spectacles. The film's surface is lavish, large, expensive and overpowering. Visconti has said of this film that it is meant to be a realization of Gramsci's theory of transformismo, and this lesson is seen from the point of view of a prominent left intellectual and aristocrat, Visconti himself. This movie is in effect a wonderful costume drama whose mastery of cinematic technique obliterates not only the privacy of the past but also its very pastness, its irrecoverability, which is at the heart of Lampedusa's novel. What Visconti uses film to do to the Lampedusa novel is to add to it a sort of cinematically Proustian descant, the fin-de-siecle concern with overabundance, the leisure and excessive pleasure of the privileged class who do not give much thought to how much things cost".............
Burt Lancaster's performance is the driving force of this movie, around whom everything revolves and it seems so natural, so logical for him to do and act the way he does in this movie. He is as large as the ball room sequence, if not larger and yet, as he feels nauseous there, the fragility and impending death that he feels is effectively conveyed.
In the end, the prince walks towards the sea, kneels down in front of a church, Garibaldi's rebels are dying, the Risorgimento has failed, his aristocracy might survive for another hundred years, nothing has changed. He had rejected a senator's position earlier, for he declares that he lacks a politician's self deception. Sicily will not change, the prince declares, "our sensuality is a desire for oblivion" and we see him wishing for "perennial certainty". Even though the political concerns at the beginning of this movie are forgotten by the prince's personal concerns, Tancredi's love for Angelica, the ball scene, yet they are not swept away all together, for in the end and even during the ball sequence, we are in the palpable presence of things political.
I would have wanted politics to be this movie's main concern, but it is not. The prince of Salina speaks of jackals and hyenas replacing his order, and as Said argues, that might be us, the reader or the viewer. This keeps us at an arms length from him, for he is essentially an aristocrat and as Said further points out, Lancaster's performance and "authority derives from every other costume film made". Said compares Visconti to Adorno and Strauss and Lampedusa, as a theme of his book on lateness in style and says that their work "lacks embarrassment, with a certain profligacy, a desire to go the whole way toward extravagance, and an arrogant negation of what is acceptable or easy but also of a very risky yet adversarial pact with authoritarian systems".
Whatever is the driving force of Visconti's fervour in this movie, it is a true spectacle, a dream and a kind of movie which creates many myths.