While wandering in the secluded garden of his Palermo estate, Don Fabrizio, a Sicilian prince, finds the corpse of a royalist soldier. It is 1860, Garibaldi and his redshirts have landed in Sicily on their way to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy in Naples, and the dead sharpshooter signals the death of a way of life. In his elegiac novel, The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa chronicles this transformation. But The Leopard is more than a retelling of aristocratic decline. It is also a voyage through the consciousness of Don Fabrizio, who struggles to make sense of the paradox presented to him by his revolutionary nephew, Tancredi: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." Partially tied to the old order, partially sympathetic with the new, and yet truly part of neither, Don Fabrizio's mind refracts the differences and similarities between the feudal landowners and the assertive middle class.
As a novel, The Leopard is striking both for the richness of its prose and for the subtlety of its characterization. The movie version, directed by Luchino Visconti, communicates the luxuriant prose with exquisite photography, but, in the process, redraws many of the characters with overly broad strokes.
At a brisk pace, Visconti follows the triumph of the Garibaldini in Sicily, Don Fabrizio's acceptence of the Risorgimento, and the hesitant commingling of the old and the new. The last comes in a magnificent sequence detailing the end of the journey made by the Prince and his family to their summer palace in a village above Palermo. Descending from dusty carriages, Don Fabrizio is greeted by a host of punctuous officials and the jaunty blaring of a brass band. With deliberate steps, he walks the gauntlet of gaping, impoverished eyes to enter the cathedral where the organ is playing an aria from "La Traviata." As the last notes hang amid marble frescoes high above, the band is still heard outside in the blazing courtyard. And while the villagers push and shove for a view, the Prince and his family sit in special pews near the altar, their faces ashen frm the dust, their heads hanging limply from their necks, their eyes bulging with fatigue.
But the swift flow of images turns to honey from this point on; although the scenes are even richer, too much sweetness at too slow a pace becomes cloying. Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) decides that Tancredi (Alain Delon) should marry Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), the richly dowered daughter of the ambitious mayor, rather than his own shy daughter, Concetta. The last third of the film is spent at a ball for the couple. An excess of eating, drinking, and dancing causes lethargy for the guests and unfortunately for the viewer as well.
Despite its sumptuous sets, the scene falls flat because it is peopled with characatures. The giggling girls, the pompous general, and the swooning old ladies could be taken from any number of films. And Visconti does not merely present them; he dwells on them. Moreover, he takes two of Lampedusa's most vivid characters and drams them of life. Don Calegro, the uneducated but shrewd mayor, becomes a drunken buffoon. Tancredi, the Prince's favorite, undergoes a rather obvious transition from youthful revolutionary to foppish conservative as the middle class reaction to change sets in.
Only the Olympian Don Fabrizio is memorable. Played with strength and restraint by Burt Lancaster, the Prince becomes more and more detached as the aristocrats pander to the now-powerful bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie pander to the well-bred aristocrats. At the end, as he waits for death, the bewhiskered leopard evokes pathos for the passing of real nobility. But even then, it is only the old story of aristocratic decline, for Visconti has ignored a most central aspect of the novel by observing the Prince only from the outside.
Don Fabrizio, in fact, makes only one speech of any length. He turns down a senatorial post in the new regime with the words: "sleep, sleep, sleep, that is what Sicilians want...a hankering for voluptuous immobility." The failure of Visconti's often beautiful and voluptuous Leopard is that it encourages just such immobility in the viewer.