Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Day 61: The Leopard

There's a certain shame that comes from not understanding the context about which a story is told, a shame that sometimes inspires a reticence to admit the ignorance I have.  The Leopard poked at my ignorance over and over during its running time, detailing events that, to me, might as well have been about ancient Martian political insurrections and aristocracies run amok.  I found this excruciating.

The film is, on its surface, about events in Italian history, specifically events in Sicily (you know, the place with penetratingly sweet sherberts), and I'm still not entirely sure I understand the historical aspects of the film (the shame).  My loss.  The events depicted are gorgeous, beautifully shot and thick with period pageantry.  This is so emphasized in the opening, with depictions of a wealthy, aristocratic family run by Burt Lancaster and some revolutionary fighting in the streets, that I feared I might be in for an Italian version of Gone with the Wind, only without the context to get why this terrible war was being fought in the first place.  Not so.

What The Leopard is about is the passing of one age to the other, from monarchy steeped in beautiful, yet restrictive, traditions, to the ugly rabble and freedom of a people-run state.  This passing is personified by Burt Lancaster as an aging prince, forced by circumstances to compromise his principles in order to preserve his way of life.  His era and its way of dealing with power are contrasted sharply by Paola Stoppa as a stumbling, ill-mannered rube, a man lucky enough to have acquired such wealth as to be a force to reckon with in this new world.

I've written about how this movie angered me on first viewing.  Not having the proper context surely played a part in that.  If I were a history buff, I'm sure I'd have been delighted to see history written with such lightning.  Instead, I was confused, displaced, and irritated that the movie didn't help me along by setting up the historical context (I can be a dumb American too) more clearly.  But even with this crankiness, there was no mistaking the brilliance of the ballroom sequence in this film.  It goes on and on as people dance and Lancaster stomps about, tired, worn, and saddened by the death of his way of life.  It's superb on every level and hits its height when the old prince dances with Claudia Cardinale, a dance that gives him one last chance to be a true dashing prince and not the withered old man he really is.

The Leopard will stay with me for the rest of my life, this much is certain (and not just for letting me know about the penetrating sweetness of certain sherberts).  The images in it are stark, sharp reminders of how beautiful cinema can be, and the weary, oppressive tone is a brilliant, grim counterpoint to this beauty.  Despite my first impressions, I'm beginning to think it's one of the better movies about aging and dying, making the personal aspects of aging political and the political aspects of worn-out regimes personal.  Still, I do wish to see it again, preferably in five or ten years so that the first impression will have faded some.  Maybe it's just an indulgent, pretentious stew after all.  I can't say right now.  I'm still in love with the last shot of the film.


zora said...

you are everything but dumb (i would have said: a dumb american, but you are american...).
i'm european (and i don't think i'm dumb, either...), and i didn't understand all the political events in this movie. and except for university students of history, no one will really understand all of it. there have been so many historic events in those days, you have to be an expert. and the movie is not so much about this history, is it - if it was, it would depict all the events more clearly, wouldn't it? - but about how history happens also in the little lives of people. you put it better already.

have you seen death in venice? if you liked this one, you must love that one...

David Austin said...

I agree with both of you. I loved The Leopard, but it definitely smacks you over the head with your own ignorance about Italian history. After watching the movie, I went out and read Trevelyan's three part history on Garibaldi (the prose is a little purple but it's very accessible) and the original novel. Now I'm going to finally watch the movie again with some context :)(Assuming I get a chance to sit down for 4 hours anytime soon).