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The Criterion Collection presents
"Something had to change for everything to stay the same."
DVD ReviewWe all so take home video for granted—any good video store (except for, you know, Blockbuster) has the whole history of movies in it, and we can pop in anything from Birth of a Nation to The Lord of the Rings with a quick trip to town, or via Netflix or the library, and we're outraged when particular favorites haven't yet been released on DVD. (Much of that is likely to die down soon, however, with the upcoming release of the original Star Wars trilogy.) But to be tantalized by and unable to see The Leopard, even with a VCR or a DVD player in your house, was for years to be reminded of what the moviegoing experience was like for the first generations since the Lumière brothers—it couldn't be more ephemeral, your only opportunity to see many films being entirely at the mercy of market forces or the whims of art house programmers. For years, I had heard about The Leopard, unable to see it—it didn't show up on television, it wasn't available on home video, occasional screenings at Manhattan revival houses in the 1980s sold out more quickly than Springsteen concerts. I 'fess up to camping out at the information desk at the Museum of Modern Art one day, the first on line to get tickets to a screening of Visconti's film that evening—it was like winning the lottery, but of course I spent the day trying to tamp down my expectations, for what could possibly live up to the hype?
Imagine my jaw-dropping wonder, as the closing credits rolled, then, to find out that Visconti's film was at least as good as everyone said—better, probably. It's a huge, magisterial, elegant, mournful film, not necessarily what you might expect from one of the great men of Neorealism—there's little or nothing in, say, Ossessione or La Terra trema to prepare you for the scope and sweep of The Leopard. It's probably overstating the case to call this one of the all-time great films, but there is greatness in it; and in many respects for decades it was unjustly treated by the vagaries of the film business. Criterion rights many of those wrongs, and makes the film readily available, in this stately, impressive, three-DVD release.
Based on a novel by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard is set in 1860s Sicily, as the aristocracy gives way to revolution and unification, led by Garibaldi, bringing together a collection of combative fiefdoms into one nation, Italy. Our hero is the very personification of the old order—the aging Prince Don Fabrizio Salina sees his world withering away, and knows that he is a man of the past, and not the future. The principal dramatic action of the film concerns the courtship of the Prince's nephew, Tancredi, and the lovely Angelica—she is from a lower social caste, but her father has a fortune, and so his standing and her dowry make this a match beneficial to each family. The Prince presides over their courtship, in a way; he's asked to participate in the formation of a democratic government, though he leaves the work to younger men, despite his being so well regarded still by those of all social classes in the region where his family has for so many generations held sway.
The American film to which The Leopard is often compared is Gone With The Wind, and it's not difficult to see why—the time period is similar, as is the nostalgia for a disappearing set of social conventions (no matter how repellent, in the case of Gone With The Wind, and reliant on slavery). But I'd suggest that it has much more in common with The Magnificent Ambersons—each film understands the inevitability of change, but recognizes that what's lost frequently eclipses what's gained, that progress has a price. And similarly, each of the films had problematic experiences on their initial American releases. Visconti's film was yanked from him and savaged in the manner that Welles' was, but it was cut down significantly (roughly 25 minutes were lopped out) and dubbed into English for American audiences. In fact, the longer, Italian cut wasn't available to American audiences until 1983, twenty years after the fact; one of the triumphs of this Criterion release is that Disc 1 offers the Italian-language version, Disc 3, the English-language one. (Unless you find reading subtitles just completely unbearable, the Italian version is the one you'll want to watch. Yes, it's longer, but it's worth it; and we'll be none the wiser if you press the Pause button now and again.)
The dubbing brings with it some oddities, though, brought about by Visconti's casting choices. Burt Lancaster plays the Prince, and watching the European version, it's deeply peculiar to hear Italian dialogue dubbed in over this resolutely American actor's lines. Still, even if the voice isn't his own, Lancaster is a powerful screen presence—no matter what language is coming out of his mouth, you don't want to be on the other end of that steely stare, those piercing eyes of Elmer Gantry and J. J. Hunsecker. (And curiously, there's a way that, in the English version, though the voice is his, Lancaster's performance isn't as effective—he's got such a vital, visceral presence that, hearing his voice, it's hard to buy him as a languorous aristocrat.) Claudia Cardinale is smoldering as Angelica—she was in 8 1/2 that same year, and you can see why, with her pouty mouth and coal-dark eyes, she was Italy's fetching young thing of choice. She's also very good at conveying the slight but insistent vulgarity of her family—she's beautiful, yes, but if it weren't for her money, the Prince's clan probably wouldn't pay her much mind. And as her intended, Alain Delon makes a dashing Tancredi; though with a trio of central actors each of whom have a different first language, a certain deliberate stiltedness is emphasized in many of the scenes.
The Leopard is a pageant, in many respects, with a stately formality; but Visconti's moving camera keeps it from being a bore, and he includes also some visceral scenes of the violence of revolution. The influence of this movie on other costume dramas is evident—no doubt Stanley Kubrick at least considered its visual style before making Barry Lyndon, and the impact of it upon Martin Scorsese and The Age of Innocence cannot be overstated. It's an elegant and elegiac film, one that has been far too long out of reach—to have it readily available and looking so well is joyous news.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: It's peculiar that the original theatrical releases on either side of the Atlantic had different aspect ratios, but Criterion does well by presenting both of them here, as they were meant to be seen. The 2.21 Italian version is nothing short of spectacular; the print has been restored beautifully, the colors are deep and true, and there's nary a bit of debris to be seen. (What I mistook for a bit of dust wafting through the transfer was, I learned from the commentary track, a fly on Visconti's lens; but he so loved the shot anyway that he left it in.) The American release was in the more conventional 2.35 widescreen ratio, and it clearly hasn't been restored as lovingly as the original cut; but it's none too shabby, and the scratches and other interference seem to be a product not of the transfer, but of wear on the original source print.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: Given that all the dialogue is dubbed in both cuts of the film, there tends to be a sort of antiseptic feel to the soundtrack; many of those wounds are salved, though, by the score by Nino Rota, which is plaintive without being maudlin. It's a pretty clean listen, with only occasional disruptions, most likely due to all that dubbing.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 31 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Peter Cowie
Packaging: Amaray Double
Disc 1 holds the Italian version, and Disc 3 the American one, hence Disc 2 is rather grandly titled: The Supplements. A Dying Breed: The Making of The Leopard (01h:01m:35s) is a newly produced, thorough documentary on the feature, including interviews with several members of Visconti's production team, the older but still lovely Claudia Cardinale, and Sydney Pollack, who oversaw the English-language dubbing. (He's candid assessing his own work here: "The American version was lousy. It sounds better leaving it in Italian.") Much time is devoted to the relationship between Visconti and Lancaster, which was a prickly one at first, but ended with the two of them as fast friends. An interview (19m:30s) with Goffredo Lombardo, the film's producer, traces some of the same history of the project; he's polished, and no doubt has been telling these stories for years, about the film that he still so clearly loves, despite the fact that it more or less bankrupted his company. University of Pennsylvania Professor Millicent Marcus fills in some of the background and cultural circumstances in The History of the Risorgimento (13m:41s), and she's especially good when discussing the cultural transmission of information through movies, a role that formerly had been played by literature.
You'll also find three original trailers (one Italian, two American); a stills gallery, featuring on-set shots from four scenes and poster images from the movie's worldwide release; and two Italian newsreels (03m:15s), the first from the film's premiere, the second showing the filmmakers picking up some well-earned awards.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsCriterion rights one of the great wrongs of the home video age with this elegant edition of Visconti's magnificent film—the movie is, in all the best ways, old fashioned, a consideration of what we lose with change, and of the debts we owe to our forebears. The three-disc package, in providing both the English and Italian versions, along with an informative additional disc of extras, is cause for celebration.
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