There is a scene midway through The Leopard (recently shown, in digitally restored splendor, at the Charles Theatre), in which Burt Lancaster -- playing the aging but dignified Prince of Salina -- stands on a balcony as the results of a crucial plebiscite are read out. Though the drama and fanfare are great, the results are predetermined (rigged, in fact): Salina’s isolated Sicilian village is voting to join Giuseppe Garibaldi’s unified Italy. The old aristocratic order will be swept away, replaced by a new cosmos of democratic compromise, political greed, and populist sentiment. As a pompous local functionary reads out the results, Salina languidly, mournfully smokes a cigar, wearing an expression halfway between resignation and worry. All of a sudden, as the reading of results draws to a close, a massive torrent of fireworks explodes in the sky behind Salina’s head. The placid composition of a man in the center of a frame is suddenly turned into an opulent, colorful portrait of political fervor spectacularly unleashed for all to see. A lesser movie, or a lesser director, would have lingered on this exquisite shot until every ounce of wonder was wrung out of it. We would have seen the fireworks from many angles, we would have seen Salina’s face twist as he reacted to them, we would have seen people clamoring in the streets. But such is the assurance of Luchino Visconti’s direction, and such is the inherent expressiveness of Lancaster’s leonine face, that no such dwelling is required. We barely have time to register a shot that must have cost huge resources to realize, before Visconti cuts away, and we are back in the social comings and goings that make up the bulk of the film.
The reason I lavish so much description on that one shot -- beyond the fact that it has haunted me, in the best of ways, since seeing the movie -- is that it is emblematic of a fundamental and highly fruitful tension in The Leopard. Visconti’s film is rightly known as one of the most extravagant, maximalist productions of all time, but shots like the one described above reveal a dimension of subtlety, of sparseness and minimalism that forms the true emotional core of the film. Though huge amounts of money and beauty and power are constantly paraded before the frame, what we realize by the end of the film is the impermanence of it all, the way it pales in comparison to the drama of a single tear or a single kiss. The Leopard is defined by the play between putting everything out there for us to see and keeping everything beneath the surface.
Lancaster’s character -- meant to be construed as the noble but fading leopard of the title -- is the prime locus of this tension. He himself is a man with sharply delineated interior and exterior lives. On the outside, he is a paragon of all that was great about the old aristocratic order. With discipline and benevolence, he ushers his small Sicilian fiefdom into the modern age, relinquishing power here to gain it there, stating time and again that, “If we want everything to remain as it is, everything will have to change.” But underneath that surface of control, he is a man tortured by the thought of his own mortality, tortured by a sort of moral relativism that leads him to discern that no political order is better than any other, that both the leopards and lions of the past and the jackals and hyenas of the present think themselves “the salt of the earth” and that all are governed by basic human needs for affirmation, validation, sex, money and peace.
For the bulk of the movie, Salina -- not to mention Lancaster himself -- is an excellent actor, playing the dignified role that everyone requires of him, regulating the passions of his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon, playing a sort of vapid, opportunistic pretty boy) and Tancredi’s lusty flame Angelica (Claudia Cardinale, playing an equally vapid/opportunistic femme fatale of sorts.) But at the risk of spoiling the most transcendent moment of the movie (on par for me with the ship-in-a-tree moment in Aguirre, the Wrath of God), I want to close off this post by describing the single moment when the Prince of Salina’s poise unravels: By the end of the film, the flames of revolution have mostly extinguished themselves. A new political system is in place, but all the social functions of courting and entertaining and pleading remain the same. A huge ball is being held and all the characters convene in their lushest, most aristocratic vestments. But this occasion -- which formerly would have provided Salina with the quintessential stage for his lucid conversations, Machiavellian manipulations, and soothing reassurances -- becomes almost unbearable for him. Fleeing from this pageant of obsolete narcissism, Salina steps into a side room and gazes on a melancholy painting of a man dying. Analyzing the conditions of the man’s death in the painting -- who susurrounds him, how he is dressed, etc. -- Salina reflects aloud on the aesthetic shape of his own future death.
At first, he seems to be an archetypal aristocrat through and through: even as he ponders the extinction of his own élan on earth, he is fixated on appearances, protocol, the handing off of power. But as soon as he is left alone in the room, the camera focuses, statically, viciously, lovingly, on his weathered, once stately, now mournful face. Tears start to well in his eyes, slowly, imperceptibly -- and unlike at the scene with the fireworks, the camera does not move. It lets us see every detail of his crying, the way the tears gather at his eyelids and flow down the wrinkles and crevasses of his face. When it really matters, when the stakes are human, universal, and almost abstract in their timelessness, The Leopard becomes a film of the utmost sympathy and generosity.