Luchino Visconti di Modrone, Count of Lonate Pozzolo, the renowned Italian filmmaker and theater director, was born into the family that had ruled the great northern city of Milan since the time of Dante. Who better, therefore to direct the film version of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel Il Gattopardo, “The Leopard.” That Lampesusa died before he saw the book become an international success lends an added poignancy to the story of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, a middle-aged Sicilian nobleman coming to terms with his unfulfilled life during the time of the Italian Risorgimento. It also makes it impossible to know whether or not he would have approved of Visconti’s translation of The Leopard onto the big screen. While generally considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, Visconti’s work is not without its difficulties.
First of all, you have to know the history of the Risorgimento, the extraordinarily complex process that led to the unification of Italy in the 1860s. Until 1871, the Italians, an ancient people with a culture as old as western civilization itself, did not have a central government. Fought over and occupied at various times by France, Spain, and the Austrian Empire, they entered the modern world divided by into the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, a state that had been founded by the Congress of Vienna after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, and the House of Savoy, which ruled the Kingdom of Sardinia, and who had their capital in the Northern Italian city of Turin. In 1860, the Papal States still controlled Rome, which would not become the Italian capital until 1870, and the Habsburgs still controlled large parts of the far north.
Enter Giuseppe Garibaldi. Garibaldi, while not widely studied in the United States, is one of the most important men of the Nineteenth Century. A dashing, romantic figure, and a military genius, he looms large, not only in the history of his native Italy, but the world. He spent most of the 1850s in South America. The Lincoln administration tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade him to command an army during the United States Civil War, and he ended his career defending the French Republic against Germany and Otto Von Bismarck. Two episodes in Garibaldi’s life figure in The Leopard, the first well known, the second much less so.
The Leopard opens during the Expedition of the Thousand, when Garibaldi, who invaded Sicily in March of 1860 with a small army of volunteers. There he managed to defeat a much larger Bourbon force of Francis II, and hand most of southern Italy over to King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia, who thereafter became King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy. Only three years later, Garibaldi would mount another expedition to capture Rome from the Papal States. Garibaldi was a radical secularist who planned to abolish the Papacy. This time he wasn’t successful. Victor Emmanuel opposed his most famous general. He had General Enrico Cialdini dispatch a division of the regular Italy army under Colonel Emilio Pallavicini,which defeated Garibaldi’s small band of volunteers at the Battle of Aspromonte. Garibaldi, who refused to allow his men to fire on the King’s troops, was shot into the foot and sent into exile until he was recalled to fight the Austrians in 1866. Rome finally became the capital of Italy in 1870 with the Papacy, quite obviously, not abolished.
The Leopard spans the three years between the Expedition of the Thousand and the Battle of Aspromonte. The first scene takes place at the palace of Prince Fabrizio, who’s participating in a private religious service conducted by the family priest. As the family prays in Latin, a ritual that goes back centuries, agitated voices outside, the racket becoming louder and louder until it all but overwhelms the religious ceremony. Only the commanding presence of Fabrizio, a charismatic and physically dominating Burt Lancaster dubbed into Italian, is able to hold everything together until the final “amen.” When he goes outside to ascertain what all the fuss was about, he learns that the servants have discovered a body in the palace garden, a dead Bourbon soldier who crawled onto the property after being mortally wounded. Garibaldi, he realizes, has invaded Sicily. History has rudely intruded into the serene reality of the Prince of Salina. Salina’s wife panics, but Fabrizio himself, who’s ready to switch his political allegiance from the Kingdom of Two Sicilies to the Kingdom of Sardinia, understands that a political upheaval does not necessarily mean a social upheaval, that if they play their cards right the aristocracy will end up on top, whoever winds up in control of the unified Italy. The Prince of Salina has also hedged his bets, bankrolling his nephew Tancredi, who’s played by a very young Alain Delon, who has joined The Expedition of the Thousand as one of Garibaldi’s red shirts.
That the unification of Italy will not lead to a complete social transformation along the lines of the Chinese or Russian Revolutions does not necessarily mean that it won’t involve drastic social change. The 45-year-old Prince of Salina, aware of his own mortality, also knows that the days of his class are numbered, that the landed aristocracy will be replaced by the bourgeoisie, men like Don Calogero Sedara, the socially vulgar, but extremely wealthy Mayor of Donnafugata. The intelligent and progressive Fabrizio sees an opportunity. When he realizes that Don Calogero has a daughter of marriageable age, he decides to fix her up with Tancredi, a match the social climbing Don Calogero is more than happy to go along with. It is in fact the perfect match. Don Calogero wants to push his daughter into the nobility. The spendthrift Tancredi needs her money. Fabrizio’s own daughter Concetta, who’s in love with Tancredi, is brusquely pushed aside along with Fabrizio’s other six daughters, about whom we learn very little. In some ways The Leopard is the anti-Jane Austen. Young women, unless they are very rich and very beautiful, don’t really count, and Fabrizio, the middle-aged patriarch, clearly values even a surrogate son like Tancredi above his seven biological daughters. If there are no feminist deconstructions of of Viconti’s film, there probably should be.
Fabrizio considers the match between Tancredi and Don Calogero’s daughter Angelica to be the perfect social coup. Then a disaster happens. He sees her. Played by the young Claudia Cardinale, Angelica Calogero represents everything in life Prince Fabrizio realizes he’s missed. Were he not a married man twice her age he would propose to her himself. Fabrizio’s own wife, the Princess Maria Stella of Salina, is a devout Catholic. Even though she’s born the prince seven children, he’s husband has never seen her naked. Suddenly aware that he was born 20 years too early for the revolution and now crushingly aware of his own mortality, it takes all of Fabrizio’s aristocratic self-control to hand the woman he’s fallen in love with — Is there anything sadder than a 45-year-old man falling in love for the first time? — to his nephew.
Yet he does, not only in spite of how the opportunistic Tancredi is unworthy of the beautiful Angelica, but because of it. Prince Fabrizio realizes that he’s too inflexible and uncompromising to make it in the new Italy, that men like his nephew, for good or for bad, are the future. During the final hour of The Leopard, which is one extended set piece, a grand ball for the local aristocracy, probably the last of its kind, the Prince painfully comes to terms with the way time has passed him by. He’s gotten a glimpse of what he could have had, not only Angelica, but the future of Italy, had he only been a younger man. Like Moses, he gets to see but never enter the land of milk and honey. He has one dance with his nephew’s fiancee, then leaves the ball to walk back home to his palace, a man out of joint with the age into which he’s been born.
Tancredi and Angelica are married in 1863. At the ball we notice a group of army officers, including Colonel Emilio Pallavicini, the commander of the royalist troops who fired on Garibaldi’s volunteers at the Battle of Aspromonte. Fabrizio can barely hide his disgust with Pallavincini, whom he considers a tedious bore, but Tancredi, who has already jumped ship and switched his allegiance from Garibaldi to the King of Sardinia, has no such scruples. Like his uncle, the younger man understands that revolution has given way to reaction, that the Italian ruling class has co-opted Garibaldi’s patriotic uprising to consolidate its own power and privilege. Unlike his uncle, he approves. What’s more, thanks to Fabrizio, Tancredi will take his place, along with Don Calogero, inside Italy’s new governing elite. He’s too hard headed and realistic to regret the lost idealism of the revolution. Indeed, as he rides home with Angelica and his father in law, we hear gunshots, the King’s troops executing Garibaldian holdouts. Tancredi turns to his wife and remarks with pleasure how efficient the new Italian army has become. Suddenly we remember how, earlier in the film, Prince Fabrizio had given his nephew a piece of advice. The Leopard’s most famous line, it also sums up in one sentence how every ruling class that survives a revolution survives a revolution.
“If we want everything to stay the same, everything has to change.”