Has there ever been a more luxuriant filmmaker than Luchino Visconti? Probably not, and there was never a more applicable time for a Visconti tornado than in the early ’60s, when cinema all over the world was engorging itself to its breaking point. Of course, by the mid-point of the decade, it would erupt and the entrails would be so gluttonous that no hope of re-patching the beast that was cinema remained. The only chance, really, was to build a new cinema of sorts, and the scabrous knives of the French New Wave, which has been pricking their serrated edges into the balloon of cinema throughout the ’60s to quicken the imminent implosion, was as good a place as any to start.
The new rules claimed territory primarily in the basement. If you were going to restart cinema and move past the American Bible epics and the three-hour British historical self-critiques and the Italian genre pics growing perilously larger by the minute (they would continue to do so, rest assured), why not start from the dirty girders of grungy basement living again? If you wanted to start anew, why not start from the bottom, rewriting the rules and taking cinema back to the shack of its own making? Knock it down to size, essentially, Give it poverty, and poverty will breed invention and a renewed thirst for necessary experimentation and life.
As mentioned, though: Italian cinema stayed the course, largely because it knew how to use the widest of frames and the most luxurious depth-of-field and the most bellicose soundtracks to pay homage to “grand” cinema without trying that largeness into self-parody. If the French were turning to minimalism, Italian genre cinema was as bellicose as ever. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is not simply baroque entertainment, but a grimy mob-fueled epic hewn not only for the masses, but with a self-critical sense of its own monstrous, bestial grandness. It knew, basically, that in order to keep a big ‘ol film from toppling under its weight and losing its grasp of the ground, a film needed a certain tried-and-true glue to keep it stuck in place. For Leone, who directed that seminal Western, the glue was marrying luxuriance with the impoverished spirit of workaday exploitation cinema to cut through the fat of the behemoth epics surrounding it.
For Visconti, whose 1963 film The Leopard (Il Gattopardo in its native tongue) rises so far above the forest in its punishing grandness that it can’t even see the trees of the other films down below, the glue was simple: not having any glue at all. Rather than hide his film’s unsightly opulence, he would shove it right in our faces on a platter gilded in gold. He would give us a sort of cinematic hedonism, with mise en scene crammed so full the film threatens in every scene to burst. Which is the point, precisely, for it is the story of people so swooned and spoiled on opulence they threaten to ride themselves to their own extinction in a limousine that is practically the length of the trip. Visconti’s idea was to create a sort of anti-epic, a film so gloriously indulgent it couldn’t but buckle underneath itself and crash to a burning standstill. If the masses craved girth, he would give it to them.
Visconti would recreate this feat a few years later with opulence curdled into outright ghoulishness with his 1969 film The Damned (the brutally short titles of his films contrast bitterly with the singular length of the productions themselves). And if truth be told, I have a soft spot for The Damned over The Leopard, for The Damned drops any and all pretenses of being lifestyle porn and simply reveals itself as a Grand Guignol torture chamber with the rustiest hinges and prickliest spikes imaginable. If The Leopard plays along with the tortuously extravagant, superficial lives of its characters only to let those characters torture themselves over the long haul, The Damned stocks its coarsest leather whips, readies it sharpest knives, adorns its blankest, deepest black hood and goes to town. The Leopard pretends to live the dream of its characters, and The Damned, having seen the dream, not only doesn’t want a part of it, but actively yearns to destroy it.
Personal preference aside though, The Leopard really is an unmatchable work of technique in harmony with theme. All elements interlock in perfect unison as the film explores the inner emptiness of wealth, a theme expounded upon with every shot, every character movement, every piece of furniture in the set design, every perilous minute of sheer hedonistic indulgence, every costume layered with filigrees of desire and wanton lust (by master costume designer Piero Tosi). Daringly, however, Visconti’s mad genius is to leave us in a room with it all. He doesn’t rush through the opulence; he sits and waits, knowing we are smitten with it and intoxicated by its fragrance and knowing he has us wrapped around his fingers.
Fingers that bark orders at an endless parade of glitter, a pageant of standoffish self-hate masked by the same mechanism every character in the film uses to cover up their own self-policing hate: materiality. The Leopard is a grotesquely material film, infatuated with every single tick of its interior design and dead set of showing itself off to us. It crams us through the rabbit hole of opulence until every ounce of opulence warps and fragments before our eyes, as though we are part of an aquarium exhibit or a Southern “freaks and oddities” sideshow. It is a film where the wealthy are mercilessly put on display, trotted out before our eyes to act out their rituals until we can not but view their actions as anything but pantomime and theater. Frequently, we observe them from afar, all together and standing still with someone looking at them, as if they are all artificially posing for a painting, stagnantly ensuring the memory of their wealth at the expense of actually being able to move about and enjoy life in the moment. The Leopard moves beyond mere commentary and into nuts-and-bolts deconstruction of the entire identity of wealth as it manifests in performative gestures and physical markers of empty souls.
As a film, then, it is purposefully and heartbreakingly self-important, and its immobilized self-importance is the crux of its performative reflection of the material life its characters know so well. Giuseppe Rotunno’s awe-inspiring cinematography is dedicated to a painterly, almost abstract, and even darkly comical opulence seldom seen in cinema. There’s a star-studded, movie-magic quality to the mansions early and late in the film, an artificial look that lays down the gavel on how artificial and surface-level the mansions themselves are. This mise en scene exerts all its energy attempting to maintain the wallpaper of gallantry separating the declining aristocracy from the rising bourgeoisie. So much energy in fact that the look of the film can never find time to actually connect us to the characters, which is precisely the point, for they have no soul to connect with.
The narrative concerns a Sicilian Prince played by Burt Lancaster who needs to inject money into his family but refuses to accept the need to modernize. His dashing nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) is far more interested in the Prince’s begrudging plan for Tancredi to marry the daughter, Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), of a non-aristocratic mayor who has recently come into great money. A soap opera plot, if I may be so bold, but the film’s suffocating production design and particular, meticulous mise en scene intentionally evoke how cloying and arbitrary this soap opera plot is. Every perilous object placement evokes how much this family cares more about the backgrounds they walk around in than in their own actions and feelings as human beings.
Visconti asks us to bask in the self-serving artifice and wealth of the characters until the plastered-on airs turn foul with the stench of a rotting lifestyle. The director, who was himself of the Italian aristocracy until he rejected the life for open-faced Marxism, certainly reveals pangs of tragedy for the cascading change of time, but he does not wallow, nor does he sympathize with the aristocracy. The film is, instead, willfully difficult in its beauty, so lengthy and arcane in its visual stylings that the beauty becomes opaque and claustrophobic, more tiring than anything. Exactly as it is tiring for the Prince, who seems unable to emote amidst all the carnage of time. He is a human that has run dry surrounded by the walls he wishes to retreat from society into, and the film follows his stately artifice and dryness until the film threatens to fall asleep.
How perfect, it turns out, considering the Prince’s view of changing ways. He announces his preference for Sicily’s aristocratic “sleep”. A sleep that scoffs at “the agitations of modernity”, the Prince’s finishing school diction to refer to the war raging outside the mansion, a war which will determine the fate of the land he and his mansion call home. But his standoffish, smugly poetic phrasing exposes the wintry lifelessness of his family’s old ways. His wife is a trophy to him, useless except as a shorthand for wealth and social capital. She is an object to parade around in public, and he bears his children even less thought. The thought of dining with a mayor, a non-aristocrat, is to him a shame, a personal embarrassment he never much bothers to reconsider, and his nephew is primarily a pawn for marrying off to wealth to retain the noble lifestyle which the family doesn’t quite enjoy, although they certainly think they do. No life runs through any of them; they seek to preserve their life not out of belief, but because it is all they know. They cannot imagine another life. Visconti is simply on hand to give the Prince the sleep he asked for.
The pantomime rises to operatic scaffolds during the film’s finale, a famed 45 minutes ballroom dance where the Prince is leered at and stalked by the camera as he weaves in and out of the circus of a mansion (not his own) and finds no quarter, and no rest, no matter where he goes. The sequence is as moving as any sequence in all of cinema precisely because it is so unforgiving. Not only does it last, but it knows no catharsis, nor does the movement of the camera provide any respite from stagnancy. Instead, the camera simply tests the stagnancy of the mansion, eventually showing that, no matter where the camera moves, perhaps in hopes of finding a little corner of genuine human emotion in the mansion, it will have no luck. A perfectly chosen Burt Lancaster, whose implacable machismo and eye for social appearance sell the superficiality of the Prince, personifies the weight this mansion places on the life of the film and its characters (both physically as a building and representationally as a symbol and metaphor for a way of life). He, along with the mise en scene, invokes the stodgy formalism and conservatism of the narrative. A conservatism that chokes the characters, the film, and us. Visconti, a master of the choke, wouldn’t have it any other way.