Monday, 3 July 2017

On Luchino Visconti's "Il Gattopardo" (1963)

In a luxurious and expansive, and yet somehow oppressive and restrictive room, the sizeable household of a wealthy Sicilian prince, Don Fabrizio Cobera, are gathered to pray before the altar in a repetitious low drone of "Ave Maria"s. They are predominantly dressed in fine black clothes, try to hide their concerns behind outward expressions of pious devotion, and are waited on by a gaggle of butlers and footmen. Behind the continuous sound of Latin learned by rote, the viewer catches the sounds of cries, shouts, fury. Servants glance at one another nervously; the Prince and his attendants do their utmost not to notice or let it disturb their ritual. The angry noises which disturb this stuffy interior's equilibrium come from the world beyond books and chandeliers and orchards - for it is 1860, and Garibaldi and his nationalists are sweeping through Palermo.

Thus begins Luchino Visconti's highly acclaimed film Il Gattopardo ("The Leopard"), the 1963 adaptation of the renowned Italian novel of the same name by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, published posthumously only a few years earlier. It is a powerful symbolic opening for what proves to be an exceptional production of an already great novel (one of my favourites, in fact), a depiction of a nation on the brink as it lunges violently into the modern world. Yet in common with many of the best depictions of the fall of the aristocracy (Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End tetralogy (1924-8), Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion (1937), etc.) - depictions to which we moderns react with both a sad nostalgia and a worldly, nodding sagacity, as we acknowledge the passing of something which is necessary should pass and yet which we nonetheless mourn to see come to an end - Il Gattopardo is deeply melancholic, infusing its presentation of bucolic Sicilian vistas with a certain heart-ache and with rich, complex emotional turmoil.

It is also, quite simply, one of the most sumptuously shot films you are ever likely to see. From battles between officers and Garibaldini in Palermo to the exquisite introduction of Angelica Calogero to high society, to the film's great climax (a grand ball which takes up 40 minutes of screen time and is so moving it is almost hard to continue watching), the locations are always stunning, and one is never in doubt of Visconti's expertise as a filmmaker. He is equally good at exquisitely tight close-ups of his actors' faces (the camera particularly loves Burt Lancaster as Don Fabrizio) and at presenting vistas of the Sicilian landscape, from fields to cliffs to gardens, in which the human figures are tiny and ultimately insignificant.

There are so many parts of Il Gattopardo which stand out, most of which centre around the ennui of its principal character, Don Fabrizio. There's the chemistry between Fabrizio (the 'Leopard' of the title, though apparently the Italian word is slightly closer to 'Serval', a smaller and less significant big cat) and the family's private Jesuit priest, the nervous Father Pirrone, a chemistry which is one of the most endearing and endlessly watchable aspects of the film ("you have seen many naked souls. Naked bodies are far more innocent"). There's reams and reams of superlative dialogue, mostly centred around Fabrizio's awareness of his own era passing and the need to hand over Italy to a younger generation, a new Italy which he will never really see, much like Moses and the Promised Land. The script - like the book - is full of far too many gems for me to quote, but I particularly like "here, all expression, even the most violent, is a desire for oblivion. Our sensuality is a longing for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings are a longing for death. Our laziness, the penetrating sweetness of our sherbets, a longing for voluptuous immobility, that is... death once again..." and, a little later, "we were the leopards, the lions, and those who will take our place are will be jackals and hyenas. And all of us -- leopards, jackals, hyenas, sheep -- will go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth." It's a lyrical and heartfelt, but beautifully nuanced, exploration of decay and death alongside youth and sensuality. Perhaps most importantly, there's Fabrizio's infamous motto, which has now acquired something of a legendary status in modern Italian political thought - "everything needs to change, so that everything can stay the same".

But best of all is the film's last forty minutes or so, the entirety of which is devoted to a ball at Donnafugata, which the Prince and all his entourage attend. It's as beautifully shot as you'd expect - the lushness of the costumes and the decor, of the food and the music - but it is the searing melancholia these sequences inspire in the viewer which will stay with you, which made it (as one newspaper put it) "almost unbearably moving". Fabrizio, aware that his own aristocratic Italy will pass away soon and needs must become something new, walks mournfully from room to room, looking at himself in mirrors and his eyes starting to well up. He is offered one last waltz with Angelica, the fiancée of his nephew Tancredi; he gratefully accepts, and for a few minutes he feels young again, is once more invigorated... and then the evening is over, and he walks home alone. Lancaster sells the emotional highs and lows of this sequence brilliantly (alongside a charismatic, and stunning, Claudia Cardinale as Angelica), making it arguably one of the greatest sequences ever committed to film. It's topped off by Fabrizio's underplayed, prosaic, perfectly apposite line of dialogue: "I'm a bit tired, but I'm here now, so I have to stay. It would be rude to leave."

10/10 - essential viewing.

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