Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Neil Sinyard talks about The Leopard

The Leopard closes at the IFI on Thursday September 2nd. Book tickets quickly as the final screenings are selling fast.

The magisterial opening sets both tone and theme. The camera approaches an Italian nobleman’s house, lovingly recording the veils and curtains of the rooms fluttering in the gentle breeze, before eavesdropping on the patriarch and his family at morning prayers. But there are disturbances outside and the formality of the occasion is interrupted by the discovery of a dead soldier on their grounds, killed by rebels. It is an early indication of an aristocratic life about to be changed by the social forces of the Risorgimento [the movement for the political unification of Italy during the 19th century] that can no longer be held back at the family gate. Prince Salina (a towering performance from Burt Lancaster) will come to recognise that his society must adapt in order to survive and that, in his words, “things will have to change in order that they remain the same.” Thus he will collaborate in an arranged marriage between his opportunistic nephew (Alain Delon) and the low-born daughter (Claudia Cardinale) of a wealthy trader, Don Calogero (Paulo Stoppa), who is a representative of the rising bourgeoisie and symbol of the new social order to which the Prince and his kind must adjust. All these threads come together in one of the most remarkable set-pieces in all cinema: an extended Ball sequence, lasting for almost a third of the film’s length, during which the Prince’s acknowledgement of the new order is confirmed by the waltz he shares with his nephew’s fiancée, and the themes of adaptation and adjustment come together in a swirl of changing partners.

At one stage in the film, the Prince has remarked that he “feels astride between two worlds, ill-at-ease in both.” It suggests a connection between him and Visconti, whose whole career seemed an attempted reconciliation of opposites in his personality and style: between aristocrat and communist, aesthete and social critic, and between neo-realist harshness and decorative decadence. ‘The Leopard’ is a pivotal film for him, looking back to ‘Senso’ (also about the Risorgimento period and the relation of the individual to huge historical forces) and forward to ‘Death in Venice’ (the decay of old Europe) and even a late masterwork like the 1974 ‘Conversation Piece’ (which also concerns itself with the uneasy integration of a civilised, cultured class into a cruder, undisciplined but vital community). With its sensitivity to both historical necessity and the sadness of change, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s posthumously published novel might have been written for Visconti and it is impossible to conceive how it could have been more resplendently realised on screen nor more beautifully scored, photographed and designed. As intelligent historical cinema on an epic scale, this has never, in my experience, been surpassed.

Copyright © Neil Sinyard and the Irish Film Institute.


  1. This is one great epic that was just made to be seen on the big screen. Even the recent Blu-ray release can not do it justice. It must be seen in the cinema. Not to be missed.

  2. We've moved tonight's final screening of it (7.30) into our largest screen due to popular demand.