Director Luchino Visconti's 'The Leopard' (1963) is adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's best-selling novel of 1958 by the same name. Winner of the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or, it is a gorgeous, engaging historical epic set during the Risorgimento (The Resurgence) when Giuseppe Garibaldi led a revolution against the aristocracy to unify Italy.
Originally 185 minutes long, the film was trimmed to 161 minutes for its American release. The Criterion Collection makes both versions available in this two-disc set, but after seeing the exquisitely restored high-definition transfer of the Italian version, supervised by director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno, and comparing it to the poor condition of the American cut, I can't imagine anyone wanting to watch the latter.
'The Leopard' of the title is Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster though his voice is dubbed by an unidentified Italian actor), and the film tells the story of how he and his family deal with the country's transition to democracy. They flee for their safety as Garibaldi's red-shirted army advances, and seek to stay above the fray. Nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon) has other plans and joins Garibaldi's forces, which angers his aunt, Princess Maria Stella Salina (Rina Morelli) because she sees this as Tancredi turning against his family.
Tancredi appears young and impetuous due to his constantly changing allegiances, including those of his heart, but he may well be a shrewd and calculating fellow. He wants to marry his cousin Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), which displeases the Prince, but soon becomes infatuated with the prettier and more outgoing Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). On the surface, she is the more appealing choice, however, Tancredi knows the wealth and connections of her father, Don Calogero (Paolo Stoppa), will be have its advantages.
The reunified Italy is to be run by a democratically elected Senate. Cavalier Chevally (Leslie French) comes to visit the Prince and inquire if he, an important man of great standing in his community, would be interested in becoming a member. Flattered by the offer, he has no interest. Though the task of governance sounds boring, he finds himself "straddling two worlds, and ill at ease in both," a comment not only about the changes his country is going through, but a state all are destined to find themselves in before their final rest.
At the beginning, it's difficult to muster sympathy when the opulence with which the Salinas and the aristocrats' are immersed is shown, but as the characters reveal themselves to the viewer, their story becomes compelling. Also intriguing is watching the transfer of power affect those new to the role and those jockeying for position. The Prince speaks of it, saying "Those who will take our place will be jackals, hyenas," initially appearing bitter, but also offering insightful commentary from the author's pen, who has the advantage of history.
While it may take a few scenes to get used to Lancaster's dubbed voice, he gives a very strong performance through his body and facial expressions, almost like a silent actor. He, along with the voice actor, make the Prince's emotions clear to the viewer at all times.
Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and production designer Mario Garbuglia are two vital stars of the film as well due to their brilliant work. No matter whether the natural exteriors or the vivid set interiors, almost every frame is worth pausing to appreciate. Highlights include Chapter 6 The Battle of Palermo, an epic action sequence where the red-shirted rebels lay siege to the armed forces trying to protect it. The dinner scene of Chapter 12 is extravagant and richly detailed. Running roughly 47 minutes, Don Diego's ball is a stunning sequence filled with amazing affluence. It no doubt required a great deal of planning and a lot of work to execute, as some scenes have huge depth of fields and are filled with many extras.
Under the guidance of Visconti, 'The Leopard' is a very impressive piece of work that tells a fascinating tale about Italy's past.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Leopard' (spine #93 in The Criterion Collection) is a 50GB two-disc set housed in a cardboard, tri-fold digipack that slips into a cardboard sleeve. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a 16-page booklet containing the essay entitled "Remembrance of Things Past" by Michael Wood.
The video is presented with a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer in the original Super Technirama aspect ratio of 2.21:1. According to Criterion "was created on a Spirit Datacine from the original 35mm camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS system and Pixel Farm's PFClean system, while Digital Vision's DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction," so it's no wonder the source looks pristine.
Along with the bright yellow credits that pop off the screen, viewers will be wowed by the bright and gloriously vivid greens and browns of the Italian countryside. Once inside the Prince's villa, the rest of the color spectrum joins the palette. There's a fantastic scene in the Prince's study when he talks with Chevally where the colors appear to fluctuate and brightness and shadow alternates due to the fireplace flames. Blacks are deep and inky. Contrast appears strong and consistent throughout.
The objects are very sharp and reveal ample detail, from the rough texture of the worn concrete walls and wooden doors to the folds and wrinkles in a sheet laid out for a picnic and Tancredi's courdoroy jacket. Depth is clearly evident in part because of the way Visconti fills the frame. There is slight grain that expectedly increases in darker scenes.
As great as it looks, there are some flaws. A young girl's dress has a pattern that causes brief aliasing during the first sequence in the villa. An isolated flicker occurs twice during pans outdoors across an area with small, fine objects and high contrast. Once as the sky and sunlight filter through the trees and foliage. Another at 1:18:45 when the Prince is out hunting rabbit on a hillside. A very odd occurrence at 1:42:31, almost as if an element got loose during a printing stage, finds a ripple pass across frame as a servant runs towards a reading room where the family is. It's most noticeable on the left edge of doorframe, which pops to the left.
There's also a source issue in Chapter 7 at 33:30 when the Prince's carriages approaches the rebels. During an establishing shot pan, the shadow of an insect can be seen moving across the lens.
For the uncompressed monaural soundtrack, Criterion "remastered at 24-bit from the 35mm optical soundtrack print master. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using ProTools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated audio workstation."
Isolated to the front center channel with minor support from the subwoofer, the audio elements are as balanced as can be expected. Although Italian, the dialogue appears clear and not muddled, and Nino Rota's score never interferes. However, the dubbing sounds a bit flat. The only consistent loud portions of the soundtrack is the gunfire during The Battle of Palermo, but it is restrained. This is a faithful presentation of the original source.
This is a great film. This Blu-ray comes with picture so exquisite that 'The Leopard' is sure to be on a number of "Best Blu-rays of 2010" lists for that aspect alone. Audio offers a faithful presentation of the original source. Extras, including an entire second cut of the film, are ample and informative. This is a job well done in presenting an exceptional film in the best manner possible. Highly recommended.