This is the story surrounding the lives of a Sicilian aristocratic family, the House of Salina (and to an extent the House of Falconeri). In particular the head of the family, Prince Don Fabrizio Corbera (“the Leopard”), and how he and they are impacted by the Italian unification or Risorgimento as Garibaldi and his thousand volunteers sweep through Sicily, changing all in their path.
During the opening scenes we see the Salina family taking rosary and as is often the case throughout the film, Visconti and cinematographer Rotunno pan into their surroundings, their prayer is off screen and the tapestry of the curtains blows inward toward them. It’s an exquisite shot (a word that sums up this film) as we feel the wind of change blowing in on them. Here we have the first deep-focus / depth of field shot that takes in the entire family with Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) at the centre of its unit. Their prayer is sporadically interrupted by the sounds of gunfire and mobs. Towards the end of the prayer, one of their staff, Mimi, opens up the doors that lead to more rooms and space. This opening sequence depicts some ongoing themes: the family, in particular the Prince, trying to keep with routine and rituals in the face of a changing world and chaos outside the confines of their palatial and privileged surroundings, sounds that are for the moment off stage or not central to our viewing but soon will become the main focus, the Prince being central to the family and dictating the movement of the camera, Visconti’s desire to use deep focus to consistently show the family as a unit, the use of doors during pivotal scenes that symbolise the space and world being shut out that eventually must be allowed in. The opening pan shot that leads up to the villa also shows one of the many motifs of the film, the statues that Visconti seems to continuously link back to the family.
Fabrizio’s nephew, Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon) is representative of the changes and a link to the outside world beyond the palace walls. He is ambitious and joins Garibaldi’s red shirts. Tancredi is the source of a key recurring theme when he states, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” This is largely referring to the uprise of the nouveau riche or enterprising middle class and the displacement of the aristocracy with a constitutional monarchy. Visconti skilfully and with subtlety weaves these large ideas in a way that is personal throughout the narrative.
A letter from a fellow aristocrat and a newspaper bring written warnings of the Garibaldi army right into the home where Fabrizio reacts by scoffing at their cowardice. This shows Fabrizio’s strength and sense of leadership, but also his naivete and stubbornness.
It is interesting too that Garibaldi is never seen in the film, he just haunts it like a ghost. He is spoken of in serious, sometimes hushed tones.
We see the seeds during two different trips, one where Fabrizio and Father Pirrone are visiting a poorer district. Fabrizio’s identity alone allows him to pass at a check point. Further on when the family is travelling to their feudal home in Donnafugata, they are stopped where “not even civilians” are allowed past. However, it is Tancredi’s intervention that gets them through because he has fought with the red shirts and he personally knows the House of Salina. Whilst this is the transference of power it also hints that whilst the family must change in order to survive and get along, because of being well connected to Tancredi there is still a regard for the aristocracy and perhaps even a kind of corruption.
There is a glorious shot of Fabrizio shaving as he looks into his mirror, but we don’t see his reflection, we see Tancredi’s face. This could symbolise many things: two faces sharing the same space or vision, a transference of power, sharing the same ideas or mirroring one another. Or this could mean an identity crisis for Fabrizio and that perhaps he feels disconnected with himself. In any case, it’s beautifully done.
From here we start to realise that Tancredi is a bridge or link to the outside world, and the more Fabrizio sees his opposition to change as pointless the more he embraces Tancredi’s ambitions.
Emanating from this we see Fabrizio constantly rationalise the change as if he is trying to convince himself. In conversations with Father Pirrone, Fabrizio says that the middle class do not wish to destroy him and that the Church has a mandate from God and therefore cannot crumble and must be classless, and Father Pirrone suggests that the aristocracy must be like the church and adapt. I think Visconti makes an interesting link to this with the use of statues in a later scene. On their arrival in Donnafugata, the church arranges a mass for the family. Rotunno pans over the statues in the church building and slowly dollies across the faces of the family. In this famous shot, they are motionless, frozen, covered in the dust from their journey and indeed like statues. This conveys a number of things for me. Statues are a consistent motif in the film. At the beginning the statues line the way to the centre of power, the royal palace. Then we see a link between the family and the statues of the church, and then at the ball the statues blend in the background, insignificant. This connects their journey. And perhaps even hints that they are becoming classless or trying to be classless just like the church.
The forces of change in the form of Garibaldi’s volunteers are finally brought to the centre stage, moving us away from Fabrizio and the family. We see the ruins of the cities as teams of red shirts take on the Bourbon army and we see the first glimpse of the tricolor flag of Italy. It is chaotic and strangely unromanticised. There is no centre for a while which adds to the madness for the viewer. And then we see Tancredi in the thick of the action and his heroic efforts. We also interestingly see him, in a flashback relayed to Fabrizio, visit the palace of the new guard. They refer to Fabrizio as “His Excellency” even if it is not allowed. This exemplifies how they have adapted to change but the Don is still highly regarded.
There is the dinner at Donnafugata where we first encounter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) in a breathtaking entrance after five years at a boarding school in Florence. Angelica is the daughter of Don Calogero Sedara, who is the embodiment of the enterprising middle class. He is extremely wealthy but untitled and considered to be opportunistic and cunning. She greets Fabrizio’s wife, Princess Maria (Rina Morelli) first, departing from normal protocol that would have her greet Fabrizio. Visconti then sets up some striking and telling triangular gatherings: Fabrizio, Angelica and her father Calogero; then Angelica, Concetta (Fabrizio’s daughter who is in love with Tancredi) and Father Pirrone; and then finally Tancredi with Don Calogero Sedara and Angelica. She is the magnet pulling together the family and the major agent of change. She is the middle class seeping into the aristocratic world.
Of course from here, Tancredi is smitten with Angelica (the much more beautiful and earthy, seductive woman compared to the awkward and plain Concetta).
At the dinner we see Tancredi relay one of his war stories and stunningly Visconti and Rotunno position the shot so that Tancredi is in full light and centred with Fabrizio tucked away at the bottom, back to the screen, in the shadows. All these subtle changes of power. There is also great management of space at the dinner table between the triangle of Tancredi, Concetta and Angelica. The camera moves and adjusts to ultimately displace Concetta and give the impression that Tancredi and Angelica are closer. This shows not only the displacement of Concetta in Tancredi’s heart but also the class change. As Tancredi tells a risqué story about nuns the Salina family greets it with shock and silence and Concetta storms off from the table but Angelica laughs, a laugh that is lengthy, awkward and contrasts greatly with their accustomed patrician sense of what is proper.
At the scene of the plebiscite, Fabrizio is invited to drink to the new alliance after voting yes for change. He is offered three types of drinks, the tricolors of Italy, and picks up the white drink in honor of his roots (the white flag of the Bourbon regime). He takes a sip and then looks startled as if to say, “Did I just drink poison? Did I just toast my death?”
Building further on these themes, we see Tancredi return to the family again, having now abandoned the red shirts to join the Royal Army under King Emmanuell II. Fabrizio jokingly asks about the change in uniform but he is having a dig at Tancredi’s opportunism and ability to adapt to what is needed in a changing Italy. This scene refers back to what he originally said about needing to change to stay the same. Tancredi is adaptable and ambitious, but one could argue it is for the survival of the family.
Visconti shows the young engaged couple wandering through the abandoned parts of the feudal palace in Donnafugata. It is absolutely striking to see the upper floors that have been left to deteriorate because of lack of money and a fading dynasty. This is the very midst of change. The lower floors still have their grandeur, showing an in-between period of a family in flux. And the scenes are gorgeous as we watch Angelica in a pink gown wandering against the discolored walls. The embodiment of change sweeping through the ruins.
Under the united regime of the House of Savoy, one of its representatives, Chevally, visits Fabrizio and asks him to be a senator in the new parliament and represent Sicily. It’s a very powerful and lengthy sequence where Fabrizio tries to explain the nature of Sicily and Sicilians. He refuses, of course, because he believes he is “utterly without illusions” and one who lacks the “faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for those who wish to guide others”. He, somewhat predictably, offers Don Calogero Sedara in his place, which is almost laughed at by Chevally.
I think in many ways Fabrizio sees himself as a fairly simple man … not in terms of being uneducated but lacking the ego for this new world. This also marks the point where Fabrizio is entering a private journey of existentialism.
He says finally, and perhaps in a way to ensure he isn’t heard by Chevally, the exquisite lines: “We were the leopards, the lions. Those who will take our place will be jackals, hyenas. And all of us, leopards, lions, jackals and sheep, we’ll go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.”
I love that. It’s like he is confessing a fear of what the new social order will be, and indeed perhaps how the new regime will be, and wisely stating that we will falsely believe we are all unified or equal.
Of course, this film concludes with the famous, magnificent and elaborate ball that is jaw-droppingly opulent. The Salinas are back in Palermo but they are mere spectators and not the central attraction.
This is Angelica’s welcome into society and she arrives in a white gown drawing in many suitors. We notice Fabrizio is tired, perhaps exhausted. He regrets coming to the ball but stays because it is the right thing to do. He wanders into Don Diego’s library and is entranced by a painting that reminds him of death and makes him contemplate his own mortality. He is interrupted by Angelica and Tancredi, who are startled and saddened to hear him talking about death. Angelica insists he dance with her in quite an erotic exchange. She obviously wants to distract him from what she sees as sad thoughts and use her beauty to make him feel good. And then we see their legendary waltz, both personally exciting for them and a very entrancing public display. Concetta watches, feeling left out, as does Fabrizio’s wife, and even Tancredi looks uncomfortable. Angelica is the new central female figure of this family and, as critics have noted before, the dance is so significant because it is the last dance of the whole social order.
At dawn, as the ball comes to its close, Fabrizio beckons Tancredi to take care of the family and get them home. Fabrizio decides to walk home, and as he does he encounters a priest on his way to give last rites. He kneels. He then looks up at the stars (he is an amateur astronomer) and pleads for something less ephemeral. It is in effect like a death wish as he contemplates just what is his position in life, what is its meaning.
There are many striking examples of depth of field throughout the film that largely use the motif of doors. Doors constantly opening to wider rooms and all in focus, as they gesture towards the possibilities of change and a way of life that must expand beyond what it knows.
Also I love the use of mirrors, particularly when they circle Fabrizio. I love the first one I spoke of with Tancredi. And then on other occasions: when Fabrizio speaks to Father Pirrone after taking a bath, and when he uses the men’s restroom at the ball, there is a mirror to the front and to his right. We see him in both reflections and he is vulnerable in both and under pressure. And it gives the impression of the world looking in on him, the changes crowding him and perhaps even the sides of him he can’t see but others can. And before the dance he looks at his expression in the same mirror where Angelica looks at hers. Perhaps another sharing of the same space and ideas and transference of power.
Lancaster is exceptional – understated, powerful, regal, comical, frightening, calm, vulnerable – and apparently he based his character mostly on Visconti himself. I see hints of The Godfather, The Age of Innocence and a slew of other films, but right now not a lot beats this. Just beautiful movie-making.