The Party Where You Cry—we've all been there, but chances are we weren't shedding tears for something so grave as the death of an entire class structure and way of life, like Burt Lancaster's melancholy Prince Don Fabrizio Salina. The ball scene that comprises The Leopard's full final third is justifiably famous, and the purplish claret, tawny flames in vintage candelabra, and fading frescoes look better than ever in this ravishing new restoration (cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno approved the process, which makes his Technirama compositions bloom again). "Straddling two worlds and ill at ease in both," the Prince stands helplessly by as Italy in 1860 moves toward Garibaldi's revolution and unification. In awe at the Leopard's graceful deportment and dignity, you mourn with him.
As historically encompassing and big as Gone with the Wind, The Leopard was likewise birthed from a bestseller, this by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, himself a prince, who based his only novel on his grandfather, another. The New York City-born Lancaster does not just adequately fill these excellent Italian shoes—he's perfect. Taller and buffer than his American actor colleagues, Lancaster brings his lifelong gymnastic athleticism and rarified heritage (his family believed themselves to be descendents of England's Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Robert) to Don Fabrizio, he of erect carriage and a warm, brilliant smile even for the nouveau riche climbers who are invading and co-opting his family and his Sicily. His discursive musings in the novel become conversation in the film (artfully transposed by Visconti and his co-adaptors), and they reveal a realist and fatalist with no illusions, who is not above painful, sentimental reflection.
Visconti adds a battle scene not in the novel; done in long shots with minimal cutting, it's the opposite of frenzied modern movie-warfare style. The laid-back look calls attention to the phony bayoneting and death collapses, but it helps put Sicily's transformation into perspective. Other extra-novelistic pleasures include Nino Rota's romantic score and a chilling tracking shot of Don Fabrizio's family at Mass, their faces covered in a swinging thurible's incense ash. There's also the ridiculously attractive coupling of Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale, as the Prince's opportunistic but irresistible nephew and the daughter of a vulgar but loaded landowner, respectively. Their engagement represents a compromise fatal to Don Fabrizio's kind, though he recognizes its wisdom. "We are the leopards, the lions," he says. "Those who will take our place will be jackals, hyenas." But his wise scorn is equally spread: "And all of us... leopards, lions, jackals, and sheep, will go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth."